Introducing You Can’t Be Serious

Hello, GovLoop!
I’m excited to start this new column, You Can’t Be Serious, in which I’ll try to answer questions posed by the GovLoop community that stem from their experiences working for, in, or with government agencies. Feel free to send me a message on GovLoop with your thorniest/craziest/facepalm-inducingest work-related conundrum. I can help you deal with difficult bosses, difficult subordinates, difficult conversations or meetings, really most workplace difficulties.
What happens in your private/domestic life, however, is the province of other advice columns (to which I’m not even going to link)!
I’ll anonymize your questions for the column, but encourage you to think of your own clever pseudonym.
For my first column, I wanted to address a question I used to encounter a lot when I was teaching writing: how do I write a “good” email?
Many of us use email with many different audiences: our spouses, parents, friends, and of course coworkers. It is only natural that we adopt a different vocabulary in our emails and observe different rules of grammar with each audience (you wouldn’t talk to your mother the way you talk to you boss, after all). So though it would seem strange to write to your mother following these rules, I heartily suggest adhering to them when you write to your colleagues at work.
Ten Tips for Effective Email
1. Subject Line – make it meaningful and short. “notes from our meeting” might be too short, and the date is included in most email applications, so “notes from our 10/29 meeting” is unnecessary. But “Notes from Navy digital marketing meeting” or “follow-up from meeting – contact list for project management” are both specific enough.
NB: One Topic per Email – when replying to email threads that splinter off into essentially new topics and conversations, change the subject line. An email thread that begins as a discussion of marketing and shifts to an editorial policy should likewise change subject lines so people can find important material. For example, a thread that starts about follow-up from a meeting and ends up as a discussion about implementation of a specific task should change subject lines as well. It may also need to include a different distribution list.
2. Salutation – use one. I tend to write “Good morning, [NAME].” or whatever is appropriate for the time of day. When you’re replying to an email, it can be more of a “Hello, [NAME].” This helps to set a friendly tone that will warm up the business-speak of the rest of the email.
Additionally, including the name of the recipient will help in two ways. First, people in the cc field know that they are primarily observers to the conversation. Secondly, should the email spawn a thread that will include new people, they will much more easily follow the reply ladder by knowing who is saying what.
3. Concise – address the salient points and close it off. Everyone is busy and you have already added a social aspect to the email with the salutation (and may add another with the closing). It bears repeating that you should keep emails to a single point (unless you are writing an omnibus “here’s what we discussed” email, in which case, the conversation is the point and expounding on any individual topic can be left to subsequent emails).
4. Formatting – use it. If you are outlining tasks for three people in your email, put their names at the opening of three paragraphs and bold the sentence. Better yet, how about a bullet list? Make your email scanable so that they can be recalled easily or printed out and taken to a meeting. Likewise, feel free to use numbered lists, bullet points, or even Roman Numerals (if you’re sending something in outline form), anything that will help people understand at a glance the structure of your email.
5. Closing and Signature – the closing is another great place to add a personal touch to an email. “Hope you had a relaxing weekend,” or (if relevant) “Have a great time kayaking the Potomac tomorrow,” are great. A good closing is a 5 – 10 word phrase that shows that even though your email was all business, you yourself are a human being communicating (efficiently) with another human being.
The signature is important, try to leave the following information, at minimum:
Phone Number
URL (if applicable)
Twitter (if applicable)
6. Proofread – the difference between the spell-check approved “public” and the equally spell-check approved “pubic” is one letter. And all your credibility. Along these lines, check for typing that appears in ALL CAPS. UNLESS YOU INTEND TO SHOUT YOUR EMAIL (OR SUBJECT LINE) DO NOT USE ALL CAPS. IF YOU DO INTEND TO SHOUT YOUR EMAIL (OR SUBJECT LINE) DO NOT SEND THE EMAIL.
7. Fill in the “to” and “cc” lines last – hitting “send” is maybe too easy. So to ensure that you don’t send an unfinished email, fill in the to and cc last. Also, unless you have a strong reason to hit “reply all,” reply only to the sender of an email and let him or her decide if your contribution should be shared with the entire group.
8. Manage Expectations for turn-around time – if you answer all your email within 5 minutes, but then take a few hours to get back to one person, he or she might think something is wrong. Because answering emails necessarily breaks up the flow of your work, it is often best to respond in batches. You can check your email every time you hear the dulcet tones of your incoming message notification, but try to respond, say, every ten or fifteen minutes (obviously, urgent emails may require more, well, urgency).
Also, if you are going to require more time to respond to an email than you may have at the given moment, at least send a reply saying “I received your email and will respond fully within XX time.”
9. Optimize your email for search – especially as companies and governments are moving to Google mail services, people are increasingly using the search feature to find emails, rather than resorting or simply trying to remember who sent them an email at what time. Make it easier for people do find your emails by loading them up with key words; formatting your emails well will also help for two reasons. First, people will remember your key words, and second, their browser will bump them up on the findings.
10. The Washington Post Test – if you work for a government agency, all your email may be subject to FoIA; if you work for a private-sector company, your email likely belongs to the organization. Don’t send anything that you wouldn’t want your boss, her boss, the IT department, or taxpayers/journalists to read. I also call this “All your email are belong to us (so don’t set yourself up the bomb).”

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Chris Bennett

Great post and good luck with the new column!

For a few days I’ve been trying this “3 sentence rule” thing and it’s working well.

Most emails and replies can be addressed in three lines in three sentences.

Heather Coleman

Very good advice here! What are your thoughts on putting the entire message in the subject line followed by EOM (end of message)?

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

@Chris – I think that’s a great rule, though I also think that enumerated lists and emails that can be printed out and used as agendas for meetings have their place.

@Heather – inre: subject as message? I endorse! eom.

Denise A. Katula

If I may be so bold to add when intending to attach a document, attach it before you begin typing the body. You will be less likely to forget it before hitting send, thereby eliminating the follow-up “oops, forgot the attachment” email. Not that I’ve ever had to do that before 😉

Looking forward to more columns.

Carol Davison

1. Never hit reply to discuss a subject other than the one in the emails title.
2. Don’t use email to document conduct matters.
3. Don’t put in email what you don’t want used against you in court or published in the Washington Post.

Mathieu Federspiel

Re: 4. Formatting: A problem I encounter, with some people more than others, is the lack of a response to the question in my email. I have taken to enumerating questions to try to get an answer to the questions, and also to keep one topic per email. It seems some people go off on tangents of their own agenda, and do not see points made in the first email.

Kristin Benson

This may seem a little too much like common sense, particularly in 2010, but another rule could be “check your email.” At least once a day is not that demanding. I am all-too-frequently amazed by the older folks working for our fine little local government who don’t attend meetings, respond to questions, and miss out on critical business because they simply don’t.check.email. It boggles my mind.

@Chris – I like your suggestion of the 3 sentence rule.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

@shelly – those are great suggestions. I worked in an office that actually had their common subject-line abbreviations in their employee handbook:

UAR – Urgent Action Required
AR – Action Required
NAR – No Action Required
FYR – For Your Records
FYI – For Your Information
EOM – End of Message

I was never able to tell what the difference was between FYI and NAR. FYR was mostly images of invoices, forwarded emails of praise (that we’d print out during our reviews) and other archivable emails.

Dawn Lautwein

I appreciate the advice. I know that I have to work on #3, being Concise. I tend to fret that something will be misinterpreted, so I write, rewrite, and expand until the email is so wordy that the reader simply skims it and ends up missing the point anyway. A related tip (for myself, at least) is that if you need an answer, make sure it reads like a question. I wrote a (too long) email yesterday explaining additional information that I needed to solve a problem and got back “K” as the complete reply, with nothing since.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

@Dawn – there’s a saying: “I didn’t have time to write you a short memo, so here’s a long one.” When I used to teach writing, I told my students that the paper you are writing helps you get to the paper you want to write. The first draft, for many writers, is an intermediary step. As people write more, they get better at writing what they mean to write on the first take. But sometimes, you write, edit, pare down, and only after a little while have the irreducible email you want to send.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

This is a great productivity tool but you have to gain the cooperation of the people who email you often. To help me sort out important email, I ask people to include a tag at the beginning of their email subject line. For example, students in my online classes are asked to preface their emails with “Comm 360” or “Comm 460.” For work projects, I create a unique abbreviation that my colleagues can use. Then I set up Outlook or Yahoo! Mail to place these emails in the proper folders. When I check my email, I go to those folders first before looking at the general inbox.