by Meridith Levinson

E-mail Etiquette: 8 Tips to Avoid Communication Blunders

May 19, 2010
CareersIT LeadershipPersonal Software

Before you dash off another sloppy e-mail, remember: Your e-mail speaks volumes about your communication skills and you as a person. Consider these eight guidelines for effective e-mail writing, shared by an e-mail etiquette expert.

Think e-mail writers have become more effective and polite in the last decade? Maureen Bertolo begs to differ. Not only do the dreaded “reply all” and SHOUT e-mail blunders persist, but also, Twitter and texting are making e-mail manners worse, says Bertolo, who began her career as a computer programmer and has been teaching e-mail etiquette classes for 10 years.

Unfortunately, she says, people express the same questions and complaints about e-mail in the seminars she teaches today on behalf of her employer, CAI Inc., that they had a decade ago. Chief among those complaints: “E-mails are too long!” and “Why do I get so many of them?!”

The persistent problem with e-mail, according to Bertolo: people over-rely on it and use it to accomplish tasks for which it’s completely ineffective, such as to explain complex procedures, solve complicated problems and air grievances. E-mail has become such an integral and easy part of the way people work and communicate that they take it for granted and neglect to think about more effective alternatives for communicating. They also want documentation to cover themselves, says Bertolo.

Now, she adds, texting and Twitter are dumbing down e-mail even more. “Texting is starting to override e-mail because it’s easier,” says Bertolo. “You don’t have to worry about spelling, grammar, a salutation. Because texting is faster, people think it doesn’t have to be as professional.”

In the age of texting and tweeting, some might argue that Bertolo’s rules for e-mail etiquette are out of touch with the way people communicate and the needs of global businesses. But Bertolo’s standards have the sender’s—and the recipient’s—best interests at heart. She simply wants people to communicate with each other in the most effective manner possible, and sometimes, that’s not via e-mail.

Bertolo also notes that an individual’s use of e-mail speaks volumes about his communication skills and how he presents himself to the world. Knowing when and how to use e-mail effectively can set people apart as leaders, she says. In a job search, a job seeker’s e-mail to a potential employer is often his first impression.

In short, if you care about your image and your personal brand, you should care about the e-mails you send.

Here are eight of Bertolo’s tips for proper e-mail etiquette.

1. Think before you write. Before you begin composing an e-mail, consider what you’re trying to accomplish and whether e-mail is effective for your task. For example, if you’re trying to solve someone’s problem, call them instead, says Bertolo. If you need to explain a procedure to someone, showing them is almost always more effective than telling them via e-mail (you can always use a service like WebEx). If you need to address an urgent matter with a co-worker in the office, speak to them in person.

2. Keep it simple. E-mail works best for simple requests and messages that can be expressed within 12* lines, says Bertolo, such as, “Can you meet me at 4?” or “Do you have this data ready?” If your message is going to necessitate more than two e-mail chains, e-mail is not a good bet, she says. When e-mails begin expanding into long chains, recipients often forget your original message, adds Bertolo.

* Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story read that e-mail works best for simple request and messages that can be expressed within two lines. We meant 12 lines and have corrected the story.

3. Keep it short. People like e-mail because it’s fast and easy. But the longer and more complicated your message, the longer it takes you to compose and the recipient to absorb. “If an e-mail requires more than 12 lines and two threads, you’re wasting everyone’s time and diluting your message,” says Bertolo.

4. Make your subject line work. People use the subject lines of the e-mails in their inbox as their task bar, says Bertolo, to tell them what they need to do. To help your recipient prioritize and understand your needs, the subject lines of your e-mails should be very clear. “Tell your recipient what you need in the subject line,” says Bertolo. “Then, instead of marking the e-mail, high-, medium- or low-priority, put the deadline by when you need a response in the subject line.”

5. Structure your e-mail. “A decent e-mail needs an opening, body and a close,” says Bertolo. The purpose of the e-mail should be clear in the body, along with any details or actions that need to be taken, she says. Sentences should be 15 words or less. Three or more points should be bulleted. The opening paragraph and closing paragraph shouldn’t exceed seven lines combined, and the body shouldn’t exceed five lines, Bertolo says.

6. Take ownership of your message. Bertolo recommends asking the recipient of your e-mail, “Is there anything I can do to help? Did I give you enough information.”

7. Avoid words and phrases that make people defensive. The way you communicate via e-mail expresses how you conduct yourself professionally. Avoid profane language and sarcasm, which is not easily detected in e-mail. Even if someone sends a flame e-mail to you, says Bertolo, you have the choice to respond to it professionally.

She also recommends avoiding questions that put people on the defensive, such as, “Why was your project late?” It’s best to address such thorny issues over the phone or in person. For the same reason, Bertolo says to avoid “provoking” words such as, “Why did you…,” “You must…,” “I’m sure you’ll agree…,” and “I don’t understand your…,” which often indicate a breakdown in communication that e-mail certainly won’t remedy. (At least not quickly.)

8. Only selectively use Blind Copy and Reply All. The only reason to use blind copy, according to Bertolo, is to keep your recipients’ e-mail addresses private. For example, if you want to send a form e-mail out to everyone in your network announcing a new job, put all of your recipients’ e-mail addresses in the blind copy field so that you don’t expose their e-mail addresses to each other. Don’t use blind copy to surreptitiously share confidential or incriminating information with someone else, adds Bertolo.

The reply all button should simply be avoided, says Bertolo. If, for example, your boss sends a meeting request or link to an article to everyone on your team and you need to respond to it, respond only to your boss. “Replying all creates inefficiency for other people,” says Bertolo.

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.