Enterprise IT Watch Blog

Nov 19 2009   8:59AM GMT

How to write effective IT e-mails: 5 simple steps

Michael Morisy Michael Morisy Profile: Michael Morisy

In IT, how often is is that the wires that get crossed aren’t electric? By one estimate, almost 80% of people spend two hours or more a day on e-mail.

That’s a lot of time for miscommunication to happen. Even if a poorly worded message sends someone off to do slightly the wrong task, valuable time has been wasted and the sender might be jeopardizing their shot at a promotion down the road. I spoke with Dianna Booher, author of  E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication, and she said poorly-worded e-mails can even be career killers.

And it’s not those accidental “Reply All”‘s that kill careers: It’s the e-mails that are only circulated internally, maybe even only to handful of people, that can come back to haunt employees without them even knowing it.

“Writing outside of the organization, nobody who controls your paycheck will likely read it,” Dianna said. “Most e-mails internally get stuck in the files, circulated to 8 other people on the team, and they make impressions that last for a long, long time – and they are a picture of your thinking process. If they are disorganized, if they omit details that are relevant or if they are confusing, that’s a reflection of how you think.”

Booher offered to share some advice on what, in her opinion, makes a good e-mail:

1)  Avoid knee-jerk responses: Email’s greatest benefit can also be its greatest drawback: speed. We open. We read. We reply. Then we think–or don’t, as the case may be.
2)  If you don’t have something to say, don’t say it: On the street,when someone you know speaks to you, etiquette requires that you return the greeting. Not so with email.  Don’t clutter up others’ in-box with inane responses.
3) Tune in to the tone of directives: Brief is good. Blunt is not.

4)  Use informative subject lines: Think headlines, not topics of discussion.  Consider the newspaper for good models. Include the action and due date in the subject line if at all possible.
5)  Stop the ongoing saga: When the subject changes, start a new string of emails.  Otherwise, you force your reader (and new secondary readers) to read through garbage to find key details.
She also shared just why she thinks it’s internal e-mails, not those famous public “Reply All” gaffes, that end up ruining more careers.

She also suggested that the first thing you consider is the To: field. “People often write an e-mail and then think, ‘Who should get a copy of this?’ that’s backwards: You should start with, “Who needs to know about this situation?’, and then shape your message to them.”

Some other e-mail tips:
  • Include a “sunset clause”: If they don’t respond, state when the meeting will be, when you assume the project will be done, or other conclusion. This makes it easier for them to “OK” what you’re proposing, or gives them an immediate reason to express a dissenting opinion.
  • Be careful with your blasts: Remember how well Jerry Maguire’s memo (er, mission statement) worked out for him? Choose your audience wisely. Dianna warns that those who blast company-wide missives often are training people to ignore them. “If there’s a person who’s relatively quiet, when they do speak up people tend to listen a little closer,” she said.
  • Remember e-mails ancestors: As one reader pointed out, endless e-mail threads could often be ended before they start if one party would pick up the phone and call.
  • Any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments, or e-mail me your thoughts directly at Michael@ITKnowledgeExchange.com. In the meantime, re-watch Jerry’s famous message blast below.
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/VH64hzWqnFk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

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