Given the importance and time spent around our email inbox everso increases as we mature into our professions, it puzzles me that this important skill is on the list of daily activities that aren’t taught in an educational setting. While easily dismissed, email receives a great deal of our attention. The average working professional shockingly spends over 3 hours checking their work email each weekday, according to an 2018 Adobe consumer survey[https://www.slideshare.net/adobe/2018-adobe-consumer-email-survey], and despite Slack threads and text messages, email remains the primary form of communication across the majority of surveyed professionals. As such, in an effort to get you and your prized recipients out of their inbox and spending more time doing what they would like, how we send emails may be worth a few minutes to consider (Or, if time doesn’t permit, scroll to some of the take home points at the end).
It was between reading the startling study above, and a professor of mine showing me an overflowing inbox of a hundred or so new messages a day, that prompted me to start thinking about how I emailed. I wrote a simple program to see how much of a time sink emailing was already for me, an early professional: I sent almost 1000 emails in the past year alone, and received well over four times that amount. My emailing follows some type of normal distribution around midday, with a small dip during noon (I would suppose for lunch; got to eat right?).
Figure 1 (below): All emails sent in 2019
Not to say I didn’t have more to learn. For instance, it wasn’t until stumbling upon an academic Twitter thread that I learned some of my common email tendencies were considered improper, from how to properly address an email, to closings which some would think as unprofessional. This was, as it always seems to be, right after the email storm of my outbox that goes with applying for a PhD. Would something as little as the salience of how an email is read affect something as big as the next five years of your life?
The fact of the matter is that there is an untaught culture surrounding email. For the early days of email, since the first 1971 networked ARPANET message featuring the “@”, this culture organically grew. Though it was opaque, much to the detriment of unsuspecting emailers as I had found myself to be. It wasn’t until the release of the hundreds of thousands of ENRON corporation emails following its accounting fraud case, that professionals and scholars alike could study this digital human communication, a dataset of which remains studied academically and freely downloadable[https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~enron/].
One striking finding from the ENRON corpus, contrary to the prevailing thought at the time, were the messages brevity, with over half the messages being only one sentence long. Another simple but surprising revelation was that the formality of opening a message with “Dear” fell out of favor to “Hey”, “Hi”, or “Hello”, a finding from Naomi Lancaster, a Ball State graduate student in my home state. Figure 2: What not to Write, but as the TA’s among us know, is written
Here’s what to do: While with any culture and form of writing, opinions and ideas will vary widely, but between the learnings from ENRON and other consultants and professionals on the matter since, one approximation of today’s email culture follows closely to that of most academic writing: your goal, from start to finish, is to convey your point as clearly and with as little cognitive burden on your recipient as you possibly can. This goes for all types of messages you may send, whether it be scheduling, a cold email pitch, a question to a developer, or a memo to your mentees. Email has evolved to become more of a practical update, rather than a drafted letter. Think about all the emails you have received, and what you do and don’t like about them. Do you want to read a disorganized essay or informative cliff notes?
This mentality follows from the subject line to the signature. The message as a whole should strike a balance between colloquialism and formality, depending on context, and erring on formality when in doubt. This begins with the subject line, which should be simple, to the point, and conveying information that the recipient will already have an idea of what they will read further on. As Naomi Lancaster had found, the greeting should too be simple. As I had been mistaken in the past, err to the side of formality when in doubt. One rule of thumb that has been forwarded is that in subsequent messages you may address the recipient by their signature of their email replies, though again, this may vary. According to Victoria Turk, the senior editor at WIRED UK, you only need to use the greeting after each “new sunrise, not each new message”, sticking only to the body of the email in threads.
Of course, the body too follows the same ideas. Cultivate your main text in the spirit of concise academic writing; you begin with your thesis, (and in some cases a sentence long introduction prior to), follow up each point in its own paragraph (typically separated by line breaks), and end with your action statement(s). The founder of Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann, says, “Assume everyone you’re communicating with is smarter than you and cares more than you and is busier than you”. Remember that an email isn’t a text message, but it’s also not a civil war era letter. As with all writing, be mindful that sentiment is not necessarily carried in email. Be clear with your intentions and what you want the reader to know or do, and when it might need to be done by. And do refer to your attachments in the body when the paperclip is clicked.
Our recency bias means the last point read will be among the best remembered. As such, you want to leave your reader with a good feeling. Sign off with a simple “best”, “best wishes”, “all the best”, etc. And while possibly a bit terse, Victoria Turk also notes to keep email signatures classy and to the point, erring against brightly colored fonts or too many spam-like images.
Your email is drafted, but as with any writing, it should be reviewed and proofed. We’ve all faced the dreaded revelation right after the submit button is clicked of information not added, an embarrassing spelling mistake, or a referenced attachment that never made it to the email. As I did, you might want to take advantage of some delay sending features offered by email clients if you’re as bad about this as I was, with three extra seconds or so of a panic saving buffer. It’s also advised to send an email during work hours, and you may also want to take advantage of automated sending times offered by most email clients. Also, by rule of thumb, CC or carbon copy, is used to keep someone in the loop of the message, though a reply is not expected.
As previously mentioned, every sector, business, and individual will have their own email style and expectations. You’ll never please everyone, but hopefully by respecting their cognitive burden and time, the odds will be forever in your favor.
- Convey your point as clearly and with as little cognitive burden on your recipient as you possibly can
- Balance colloquialism and formality, erring on formality when in doubt
- Simple subject line
- Polite greeting, but only needed on the first message of a thread
- Treat the email body like a paper: thesis, separated points, and action statement
- Simple polite sign off and elegant signature
Shoot me an email if you’d like the code to look at your own emailing habits!
All the best,