Productive Production: Email Etiquette

By:  W. James Hadden IV, MBA, LEED AP

Hey, it’s me and me again (Just kidding, still don’t have that cloning machine working right. The other me is still learning to tie his shoes; typing will have to wait.). Last time, I talked about meeting culture; today, I want to talk about email etiquette.

As technology - especially mobile technology - has become ubiquitous, the formality of our communication style has diminished. And that’s ok, until it’s not. Informal is (mostly) good; lazy is bad. Here are a few suggestions for keeping your emails professional and stress-free for the reader.

1.  When you change the subject, change the subject.

If you’re going to use an email thread to a start a new conversation (hey, it’s already got all the people I need…less typing!), then change the subject line to indicate the new conversation. While you’re at it, go ahead and delete all the previous conversation so it’s really clear the two topics aren’t related.

2. To: vs CC:

If I’m COPIED on an email, I assume it’s informational. If it’s TO me, then I assume there’s an action I need to take or that a response from me is required. There’s a reason these are different boxes. And let’s all agree to not use the BCC box. If you’re sending information to several unrelated people, then BCC is fine. But the rest of the time, you’re just being shady. There’s no reason to keep anyone’s involvement in the conversation a secret.

3. “Please see the conversation below.”

I receive this email all the time. Heck, I send this email all the time. Someone new needs to be looped into a conversation and I don’t feel like retyping everything I want them to know. But I take the time to summarize the conversation. At a minimum, highlight the pertinent piece(s) of the conversation and delete all the old email addresses. I need to know who sent each email, but that’s all. Scrolling through a ten-email string on a 5” phone screen is no fun, especially when I have no idea what I’m supposed to be getting out of the email.

4. What do you want from me?

Be sure to include your expectation for the recipient’s response in the email. People are much more likely to follow up to a single question than a soliloquy. If you need answers to several questions, then put them in a list rather than a paragraph.

On the receiving side, “Responses in line below.” is a go-to for me. I used to write paragraph responses to a paragraph of questions. And then I’d get sidetracked, go on a rant about the decreasing size of peanut butter jars, and miss half the questions I needed to answer. Putting an answer next to every question or a response after every paragraph helps. After all, no one at work really cares that Jif is charging the same price for three fewer ounces of peanut butter than two years ago.

5. Punctuation, spelling and emoticons

I know I said that informal emails are ok. And they are. But you should know your target audience. Don’t email the CEO three smiley faces and twelve exclamation points and sign off with “Later.”

  • Exclamation points – No one is that excited about work. One exclamation point per email is probably sufficient.
  • Emoticons – If you wouldn’t put it in a memo, don’t put it in an email.
  • Spelling – The computer fixes it for you; there is never an excuse for bad spelling. You have to know the difference between homophones (although Outlook catches most of these nowadays), but that’s elementary school stuff. And unless you are writing titles for pop songs (à la Prince), using numbers to replace words is never ok.
  • Grammar – In general, I try to follow the rules of grammar, but I’m a nerd (experience with the cloning machine aside). I understand that this is less important to other people and even I have been known to not capitalize a word or include the subject in a sentence.

I have so many more of these: Reply all, “Thanks!” as an entire email, read receipts, attachments without text in the body...I could go on for days. Instead, I’ll leave you with these two thoughts:

6. Re-read your email before you send it.

I started doing it because I sound like a jerk in written correspondence. I always have to go back and add things like, “Dear” and “Please” and take out things like, “You’re so stupid; I don’t know why we hired you.” But then I started catching a lot of the mistakes above. I could make sure I answered all the questions, double-check word choice, edit for length, and let the recipients know what I expected from them. Slowing down allowed me to have more effective communication via email, which keeps me out of meetings. Which I love. (2).gif

In closing

Evidently, the word choice for people’s signature line is a pet peeve. “Best regards” vs “Sincerely” vs “Thanks” is as big on the Internet as the peanut butter scandal. I’ve got no opinion on the best way to sign off from an email. I’d just caution you that your auto-signature doesn’t always align with the tone of the email. “You’re fired! Thanks, me” is probably bad form. And it’s typically best to refrain from using “Blessings” unless your workplace is a church.

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Improving your email style is as easy as putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If you would hate to get that email you’re writing, don’t send it.

W. James Hadden IV, MBA, LEED AP is STG Design’s Director of Operations. He has a BArch from MIT, an MBA from Duke University and 20 years of experience in the A/E/C world. His passion for improving processes led him to STG almost a year ago to make the business of architecture more efficient.