If you’re like a lot of us, you get so much e-mail every day that you might spend as little as 15 seconds scanning a message to determine how it applies to you. Now, imagine that other people are reading your e-mail the same way. If they can’t quickly identify the purpose of your message, they’ll probably delete it or leave it in the Inbox for “later”— if later ever comes.
In this article, I give 6 tips to ensure that your e-mail messages are read and get the attention they deserve.
1. Make the purpose of the message clear
When recipients receive your e-mail message, they should be able to see at a quick glance how the message relates to them and why it’s important. They may be looking at a preview of your message in Microsoft Office Outlook or on a Windows Mobile-based device, such as a smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA). Or they may see only Subject lines in their Inbox. If your Subject line is confusing and irrelevant, your e-mail will surely get deleted in a hurry. Here are some examples of what can be included in Subject lines to make sure the reader opens your mail:
- A standard subject heading such as “Action Requested,” “Response Requested,” “FYI,” or “Read Only,” depending on the action indicated in the body of the message.
- The meaningful objective or supporting project that the message relates to, for example, “FY 2010 budget forecasting.”
- The required action if applicable, for example, “Consolidate departmental budget spreadsheets.”
- The due date if applicable, for example, “Due by July 7.”
An example of an effective Subject line is “Action Requested—Consolidate all department spreadsheets for FY 2010 budget and return to me by June 15th.”
2. Tell recipients what action you want them to take
Be completely clear about the actions you want the recipients to take. Be specific and put all the material that is related to an action in one place. To get even faster responses, talk in terms of how the action relates to the recipient’s objectives, and always give due dates. It’s also important to clarify what type of action you want the recipient to take. There are basically four types of actions you could request. If you make this level of detail clear, the recipient will be most likely to read the e-mail and take the action right away. The four actions include:
- Action: The recipient needs to perform an action. For example, “Provide a proposal for a 5% reduction in Travel & Entertainment expense.”
- Respond: The recipient needs to respond to your message with specific information. For example, “Let me know if you can attend the staff meeting at 9:00 A.M. on Friday.”
- Read only: The recipient needs to read your message to make sure they understand something. No response is necessary. For example, “Please read the attached sales plan before our next staff meeting on August 12th.”
- FYI only: The recipient should file your message for future reference. No response is necessary. In fact, even reading the message is optional. For example, “Enclosed for your records are your completed expense reports.”
3. Provide the proper data and documents
Make sure you give recipients all of the information they need to complete an action or respond successfully to your request. Your co-workers shouldn’t have to come back to you asking for information, whether it is a supporting document or a link to a file on a shared web site. You can include supporting information in the body of the message, in an attached file, or in an attached e-mail. In Hotmail, you can use the Quick Add feature, which lets you search for and insert content such as images, video, restaurant details, maps, and movie times into your e-mail messages, without ever leaving Hotmail. In addition, if you want recipients to fill out a form, it’s a good idea to attach a sample copy of the form that shows how it should be filled out.
4. Send the message only to relevant recipients
Target your message to the appropriate audience. Only people who have to complete an action on the subject line should receive your message. Be thoughtful and respectful when you enter names on the To line. People observe your thoughtfulness and the results are more effective. Here are two simple questions to help you filter the To line recipients:
- Does this e-mail relate to the recipient’s objectives?
- Is the recipient responsible for the action in the Subject line?
5. Use the CC line wisely
It’s tempting to put loads of people on the CC line to cover your bases, but doing so is one of the fastest ways to create an unproductive environment. Here are some things to consider when using the CC line:
- No action or response should be expected of individuals on the CC line. The recipient needs to only read or file the message.
- Only those individuals whose meaningful objectives are affected by the e-mail should be included on the message. If you are not sure that the information is related to a co-worker’s objectives, check with that person to see if they want to receive your e-mail on that topic.
6. Ask “final questions” before you click Send
The final thing you want to do is check your work to be sure you are supporting meaningful actions. Sending clear, well-defined messages can reduce the volume of e-mail you send and receive, encouraging correct action, saving time, and limiting e-mail trails. Make sure you ask the following questions before you send the message:
- Have I clarified purpose and actions?
- Have I included supporting documents and written a clear Subject line?
- Did I write the message clearly enough so that it does not come back to me with questions?
- Am I sending the message to the correct recipients?
- Have I run the spelling checker and edited the message for grammar and jargon?
Bonus: Don’t send junk e-mail
One of the quickest ways to get onto your recipients’ “delete radar” is to overwhelm them with meaningless e-mail. Responding to e-mail with “I got your e-mail, thanks,” or sending out lots of irrelevant data that you think they might want to know about is a quick way to create a track record of sending unproductive mail.
To summarize, it is incredibly easy to create an unproductive culture using e-mail. Follow these guidelines and you can be sure you and your team are able to keep focused on meaningful objectives and don’t create e-mail overload.