Ten must-know email tips for teams to make an impact and get results

By Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights
and Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates

Are you having trouble keeping up with the fusillade of emails your team members churn out each day? Are you wondering why team members don’t respond to your messages or if they even read them?

Email is the cornerstone of communications for most teams, whether co-located or remotely located. Yet surprisingly few teams have taken the time to create agreed-upon email standards that instill the necessary disciplines to save considerable time and frustration later on. For remote teams, the absence of well-articulated email practices can have an especially negative impact, given that there are far fewer opportunities to address communication misfires.

As more of us scan our emails in parallel with other activities (yes, we both confess to multitasking on occasion!), it’s especially important to create emails with greater intention so we achieve the desired results in the shortest time. Likewise, we need to help other team members be aware of what they can do to increase the likelihood that they focus on our most important issues.

Joining me in writing this edition of Communiqué is Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, a nationally known business writer, workshop facilitator, coach, and author who helps clients to be more productive and profitable through the written word. We offer the following practical, must-know tips for creating emails that will streamline and strengthen communications among team members:

1. Determine when and how email will be used by the team. This is especially critical when a team is geographically dispersed because email tends to be the default method of communicating. But it’s not always the most efficient or effective means. Email may be more appropriate for some members than others or for some phases of a team’s work. But there may be better options, depending on your objectives and intended audience. Take the time to agree as a team under what conditions email is best, and in what situations another communication channel may work better. As an option to email, consider posting your documents on the team’s intranet site or creating a blog. When you do, make sure people know when new information is posted and provide the necessary links.

2. Decide on topics for mass distribution vs. selective sending. Avoid the temptation to cover all the bases by routinely sending or copying everyone on every email. For example, determine in advance who needs to be included as a “To” on your status report, who needs to be copied, and who doesn’t need to know. Also agree as to whether you’ll be using bcc, as some teams find it distrustful. Check in with team members from time to time to validate your assumptions about their wanting to be included or excluded on emails about certain topics. Until you’re certain, err on the side of over communicating, especially with a new team when relationships are being formed.

3. Establish standards for response time. Be aware of people’s vacation schedules and holidays in other countries. And always remember not everyone is willing to push aside a vacation just because you’ve marked an email “urgent.” If team members work in a variety of time zones, try setting a standard by which they can respond to email requests by the end of their business days. In this way colleagues working behind them have what they need at the start of their day. Create conventions to signify urgency in the header so you flag the level of priority.

4. Create a subject line that is clear, concise, and informative. Type your main message in the subject line. In that way, someone can grasp the gist without having to open your message. Use strong words to grab your readers’ attention. For example, if your project is in trouble, instead of writing “Project status” as your subject, write “Project threatened by lack of funding.” This will ensure that readers will be motivated to read the text. Filing the message and accessing it later is easier when the subject line reflects the content of the message.

5. Call the readers’ attention to actions, issues, and decisions. The first few lines of an email are critical because they may be the only ones read, especially if your reader accesses email from a PDA. For example, if adherence to ground rules is important to the success of a meeting, call that out right up front in your meeting email. You may say: “Please arrange your calendars to ensure that we have 60 minutes of your undivided attention for this call. Multitasking will not allow the kind of valuable contributions we need from each of you.” Underline key words in red, use boldface, or highlight in some other way. Headlines may include Action Requested, Next Step, or anything else that is appropriate.

6. Understand the questions your readers will have by asking yourself who, what, when, where, why, and how. Before you compose your message, consider what questions your readers will need answered. Condense that information into the first few sentences. For example: “First drafts of FY’07 budget plans are due to cost center managers by November 15. All plans must be in Excel format, using the FINPLAN07 budget planning template found in the first entry of our SharePoint directory under the topic ‘Budgets and plans.’ You can find an example of a completed plan in the document named SAMPLEPLAN 07, listed as second entry in this same location.” By providing all the necessary information up front, you will avoid potential questions later.

7. Anticipate your readers’ likely reaction to defuse negativity. If your message is likely to be sensitive, contentious, or met with resistance, test it with someone else first (including the subject line). With a virtual team, you have very few opportunities to make amends if you offend or upset someone via email. When delivering negative news, try to offer options or provide a rationale so that people can be understanding. For example, if you’re letting someone know that you cannot complete a report by next Monday, consider mentioning that you can have the first two critical sections by Monday. Always remember: If you’re delivering negative news, phone or discuss it face to face. Then follow up with email as confirmation.

8. Eliminate all words and thoughts that don’t add value, while being personable and complete. It’s much easier for many of us to spew out as many details as we can think of, leaving our harried readers to extract the hidden kernels. It may require more thought to hone your key message, but ultimately you’ll save time by avoiding unnecessary follow-up calls, emails, and IMs. When you write an email of substantial length or substance, compose it in your word processor. In this way, you can edit and save the draft for later, rather than feel compelled to hit “send” and accidentally send it before you’ve had a chance to revise and proofread.

9. Proofread very carefully. Eliminating typos is relatively easy when you use spell check. However, many words have valid spellings that you may have used incorrectly (principal and principle, for example). Also reread for grammar, clarity, flow, and organization. If you question whether you’ve used a tone that may be offensive, test it with others after you’ve had a chance to look at it with fresh eyes.

10. Develop cultural sensitivity. When your team includes people from other countries and cultures, test important messages with people who are fluent in your language and theirs. Make sure your tone is appropriate and your content is clear. Err on the side of formality, especially with new team members who may chafe at a casual salutation or be perplexed by your attempts at humor. Minimize abbreviations and acronyms. (If you must use them, explain them.) Avoid slang and jargon. Use simple vocabulary and conventional syntax. Over-explain, rather than under-explain. Take the time to check in with people via phone after they’ve received important emails. This ensures that there are no misunderstandings.

Always keep in mind that email is one-way communication. Conversing via email or IM can be time-consuming, distracting, or may result in misinterpretations or misunderstandings. When you use email, make sure your objectives are clear to both you and your reader and your content reflects those objectives. When you need a real discussion with someone, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting.


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