Email Best Practices

There should be books written on this topic. Many, and all with fewer than four paragraphs or no one will finish them.

Manage email subjects

Whenever someone is compelled to label something as “common sense”, everyone agrees even though it is clear that it is not all that common because it had to be called out. That can apply to just about anything I have to say about email. So here are a few common sense concepts about email:

Keep the email to a single topic

While some people are good at making context shifts in a conversation, there are many people who find switching topics difficult. In verbal communication a missed context switch will often result in a response being framed in the previous context. The same can happen in emails, or (worse) the new context is simply ignored. Why is it worse when ignored? Because when a subsequent email requests a response to the ignored/skipped topic, the recipient will either again miss it or reply that they have already responded. This is neither obstinance nor resistance; it  is how their brain perceives it. Keeping to a single topic may initially seem inefficient (and it is if you know for a fact the recipient is good at context management) yet it is far more efficient to write three emails and get a congruent response to each than to write one email followed by a chain of a dozen follow ups that may or may not conclude in everything being answered.

I feel so strongly about this, I wrote a longer rant recommending to Keep Emails to a Single Topic a year ago.

When the thread changes topic, change the subject.

Even congruent email chains can move from one topic to another. If you are the one writing the email with a topic change, change the subject in the email, even if you do retain the earlier thread as a related reference. If someone else changes the topic, update the subject in your reply with [New Subject] (was re:[Old Subject]. When you go to search your email for a thread several weeks later, you will be glad you did.

Trim to fit

When replying to an email where many people are on the thread, remove the list of recipients from the original email, especially when updates are inline (another bad practice).

Many more tips to come…

© Scott S. Nelson

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