Email Subject lines, links and numbered lists – Communicate with clarity and respect

The burden of communication is on the communicator; not the recipient.

Therefore proper email communication and email etiquette is for YOU to use

  1. Use active and strong subject lines – be exact
  2. Link to exact content or web pages – nobody has time to google it
  3. use numbered lists – numbered lists in email define priority
  4. limit use of bulleted lists – bulleted lists in email are for the lazy communicator

Further, try to use reasonably short paragraphs. Use these guidelines on how to write a decent email that might actually produce results.

Seals at La Jolla in California
Seals at La Jolla in California
Specifically email communication must use:
  1. Email Subject Lines – all emails need a well articulated and relevant Subject Line.
    1. Examples of good email subject lines:
      1. Client X going live on Tuesday July 29 before Friday Board Meeting
      2. Training help file on email etiquette posted on
      3. “Feast with the Beast” Presale Facebook AD text (sent to the zoo)
    2. Bad subject lines torture your coworkers with anxiety which lowers morale and greatly reduces profitability.
    3. Every time an email is sent with a bad subject line, a baby seal dies. This is sad. Save the baby seals! Use good subject lines!
  2. Links to the EXACT content or subject because ease of use changes behavior.
    1. Ease of use changes behavior. Without links people will NOT click through to see the work that has been done.
    2. It is rare that an email goes out that is truly not about SOMETHING that should be linked. Yes exceptions occur, but they are rare exceptions. Link to what you are talking about. Or don’t waste other people’s time if you are just that lazy.
      1. Think about it. It is not your coworker’s responsibility to overcome your unwillingness to copy/paste a link from a site you are probably looking at when you sent the email!
    3. Every time an email is sent without relevant and specific links, a baby seal dies. This is sad. Save the baby seals! Use links!
  3. Numbered Lists – organize your information.
    1. Bulleted lists suck – bullets are fundamentally evil because they do NOT convey priority by the sender (YOU!). Yet the recipient invariably starts at the top assuming this is in fact the top priority.
    2. Numbered lists with priority 1 being first – The value of forcing yourself to use numbered lists is that the sender (you) must organize your thoughts before confusing everyone else. It has been my experience that most people do not “order” bulleted lists but numbering makes them think about it.
    3. Raise your hand if you like numbered lists! Now raise your other hand so things balance out. Or to put it another way – be kind to people who need this structure. It benefits you if people understand your message. Embrace diversity including “diversity of types of thinkers.” Structure and prioritize your content in email communication, or really any communication.
  4. Use Short Paragraphs – with rare exceptions
    1. Shorter paragraphs with strong subject sentences greatly increase reading comprehension.
    2. Speed readers tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph and use that to make a decision if they should bother reading the rest. Shorter paragraphs means more of your message is consumed regardless.
    3. They force you to organize your thoughts before wasting everyone else’s time!
  5. Don’t use Nickel words – save them for scrabble
    1. To repeat – the burden of communication is on the communicator, including in email, not the recipient. While it is possible to write in tongues, this needlessly reduces comprehension.
    2. But don’t oversimplify an email as that just make it more confusing. Just make it as simple as possible and no simpler.
    3. If you must use an idiosyncratic word – well – LINK IT!
We all value our time. You do. I do. Everyone does. So it frequently seems expedient to send an email quickly without thought. The problem is the person receiving these emails might be receiving 500 emails a day and there is no way to Get Things Done without more data.
For example assuming you – not putting a decent subject line – costs each recipient 1 extra minute of time to comprehend (if they give you this minute), then an email that saved you 1 minute, just cost a company of 30 people 29 minutes of billable time. This is very real money. And these are very real emotions on the part of the recipient.
Don’t be mean; take the time to write decent emails. Or don’t speak.
[Note: this was an internal company help file for years, I probably wrote it around 2002 or 2003. This is just me reposting it for public consumption.]
[Update: You may also want to check for readability. I blogged about the gunning fog index here.]

it would be helpful if you sent me a link

(text cut from an email that will never be sent.)

No, I am not trying to be rude. I am just trying to explain why I am not replying to your email. Please bear with me.

The Internet is made up of what most people call “links“. In fact these are really part of a name-space called Uniform Resource Locators. When you type a link the system ASSUMES “http:“ or Hypertext Transport Protocol. But it could just as easily be telnet: or ftp: or https: etc”¦. The main point is that the link specifies both protocol and the EXACT uniform location. It is specific. It is a specific location.

In the scenario below you were having difficulty with several profiles and images on some site. I gather that from the partial names. My bet is that at the time you were having that difficulty YOU WERE LOOKING AT THEM. And above that page was a URL ““ an exact reference to this exact and specific page. But you did not copy it. Rather you typed a long email to me with clues about the possible world you were in at the time.

So, to help you based on the email you sent I have to commit half an hour just to retrace the steps. Make a few educated guesses on where you were at. And I still can’t be sure I am looking at the same thing. On a Monday morning at work. Awesome.  Because you don’t want to bother to copy/paste you are sending me on a goose-chase. For a technical person this is perceived of as rude because it is NOT NECESSARY. The message you are sending is that our time is meaningless in comparison to the time it takes to you copy and paste a link.

While you probably aren’t trying to insult the technical people in your life, it is thoughtless at a minimum. And we have talked about this 9999 times. This is not the first time anyone has mentioned the importance of links. But you continue to revert to story-book requests for assistance. Sigh.

What I am trying to say here is it would be helpful if you sent me a link when you asked me to support some other companies web products that I didn’t even program. If you want me to help that is. We discussed this before, no?

Email Communication Tips

Workplace ConnectorsLets start by pointing out that while email is efficient, it is a symbolic representation of what evolved as something much richer; face to face communication. The writing didn’t come first, speech did. And speech was part, just PART, of human communication. And any symbolic representation of an original is going to lack in quality.

A while back I wrote what was initially an internal use only help file on how to write a decent email. The summary is below but I’d encourage you to read the original help file on how to communicate effectively in an email. What follows is an addendum to that help file that is more about dysfunctional organizations than actual communication skills. First the original list in abbreviate form:

  1. Subject lines – all emails need a well articulated and relevant subject line
  2. Links – ease of use changes behavior so LINK to what you are talking about.
  3. Numbered Lists – stop with the bullets. Use numbers so that YOU the sender can prioritize your own message!
  4. Short Paragraphs – try it. They are good.
  5. Nickel Words – save them for scrabble.

Additional considerations when writing an email.

  1. Don’t delegate to the recipient unless that is your intent. Specifically avoid phrases like:
    1. “Let me know” – a polite way of delegating to someone else the decision making power for the topic. And realize they have three votes; to confirm, deny, or just let it hang out there unanswered like a bill that doesn’t make it through congress. Regardless you are ceding all decision making power to the recipient to “let you know.” Probably not what you or the organization wants. On the other hand, “let me know” is a great way to avoid doing actual work so there is that.
    2. The “I can do A or B or C. Which do you prefer?” – a common response to a task request that again avoids risk by delegating back to the sender the ultimate decision making power. Granted this is an appropriate response to micromanagers. But then again, if you work for a micromanager you have a whole different set of problems. Stephen Covey talks about the difference between gofer delegation and stewardship delegation. What high performing organizations need is Stewardship delegation capable people who can make decisions and complete the intent of the task more than the specifics. If you are delegating everything back to the sender, you might have fallen into a gofer mindset.
  2. Don’t be rude.
    1. NO SCREAMING!!!! – enough said. I don’t care who you are. If you can type, you can hit a key, and the shift-lock is just another key on the keyboard. No screaming please.
    2. Thank you in advance” – arguably the rudest, most passive aggressive way to end an email. Typically people resort to “thank you in advance” after years of “let me know” fails thinking it will lead to greater accountability. Instead, you just piss everyone off with an implied “do it or die” type of ending regardless of having the authority to require compliance by the recipient. Best strategy to handle “thank you in advance” closings? Ignore the email. Or if you know the person at a friend level, pull them aside and say “really, do you mean to be rude every time you finish an email?” (Side note: yes I realize this is common for Spanish speakers, but it is a cultural difference that doesn’t translate well into the American culture.)
    3. No pre-excuses – the book Absolute Honesty talks about pre-excuses. People who say repeatedly “I’m not good with technology” over and over so they can pre-excuse themselves to not try to fix their own email problem. What a pre-excuse does, quite well actually, is prevent you from doing the hard stuff and forcing your coworkers or friends to do the hard stuff for you. Very Zsa Zsa Gabor, good work if you can get it, but for most of us we need to stop the pre-excuses and do the hard work and not delegate it to our friends just because they don’t call us out on our pre-excuses. But again, in a dysfunctional organization, pre-excuses are a another great way to avoid actual work.
    4. No Comic Sans. OK, I can’t prove there is any correlation between comic sans and a decrease in productivity, but I will say nobody will take you seriously if you send emails like a 13 year old into kittens.