How to Be a Better Business Email User

Published: July 7, 2014

Email has been around for a gazillion years and almost everyone in the business world uses it on a daily basis.

Email is useful for a lot of things. It can make life easier or more difficult depending on how it's used.

Email etiquette is a big deal to me. Is it because I'm a persnickety stick in the mud? Probably. But email is is such a core component of our daily lives that I can't help but be concerned when it's used in a less-than-ideal way.

Better communication leads to better outcomes so let's turn to email to see if we can set some guidelines on how to use this tool better. Here are some ways:

1. Stick to one topic per email.

Do you ever receive email messages that have a bunch of requests jammed into one message? Within one message, someone is asking you to create a report, make a phone call, do some research, and solve a problem. What's worse, it's all jumbled together in one big paragraph.

This is stressful! A lot of people treat their email inboxes like a todo list. When you jam multiple "todos" into one message, it creates a sense of overwhelm and pretty much guarantees that your message will get put on the back burner in favor of messages that are easier to deal with.

If you you need more than one thing, put each thing into it's own message so they can all be tracked separately.

2. If you must put multiple items in one email, use a numbered list.

Yes, sometimes it really does make sense to put multple things in one email. In these cases, use a numbered list for clarity. Put each question or todo on its own line preceded by a number. This adds clarity and makes it easier for the recipient to process it.

3. Don't switch topics in mid-thread.

Do you ever notice how sometimes you will send a few emails back and forth, you'll resolve an issue, you think it's all wrapped up, but then the other person will reply with a totally new question? Or maybe you're not even done with the original topic (you've set back an "I'll get back to you" message) and the other person replies with something new anyway!

This is confusing. Don't do it.

4. Keep your email format simple (preferably plain text).

I know it's tempting to put all your social icons and your company logo in your email signature but this just adds junk. It can also create a jumble when files are attached because the images you attached look like another attachment.

5. Make your subject lines descriptive.

Vague subject lines are the pits. Instead of "question" try using more specific subject lines like:

  • "Need your thoughts on XYZ (will take 2 minutes)"
  • "Can we meet tomorrow about XYZ?"
  • "Discussion about XYZ"

Notice how descriptive these subject lines are? How useful!

6. Don't email when you should call.

If your email is more than a few sentences, call or schedule a quick meeting. Sucking someone into a big email thread about a complex topic is a waste of everyone's time.

Related to this, if an email thread keeps going after a few replies, pick up the phone or move it to a meeting.

7. Don't call when you should email.

On the flip side, don't use the phone for detailed, syntax-sensitive information. For example, if you need to make a DNS change for your domain, don't call your provider. You'll end up reciting a string of hostnames and IP addresses that leave plenty of room for error or incorrect translation from voice to ear. Email it so the other party can copy and paste.

Be a better business email user.

There you have it. Go forth and polish up your email habits. Your recipients will thank you for it.