Brushing up on your email etiquette can make you more successful and efficient

LAST week, I received an unsolicited email that began, “Alright mate”. I did not read on. Email etiquette can be tricky, and it is easy to inadvertently cause offence. Lawyers, I am told, often receive emails from their superiors ending with “pls dl”, shorthand for “please deal with this”.
Something which is more likely to inspire a short string of explosively voiced expletives than undying loyalty. That said, others can get away with incredible informality. One chap I know in the City has been known to sign off with “cool bananas”, and nobody thinks any the worse of him.

So how should you handle email, and are there any rules for using it effectively? The level of formality is something which confuses many people. Should you sign off with the stilted “yours faithfully” or “your sincerely”? How about the informal “best” or “cheers”?

Jo Bryant, etiquette advisor at Debrett’s, says that it all depends on how well you know the person you are emailing. At the start of a working relationship, you should replicate the form of a letter, with “dear” at the top, and finishing with “yours faithfully”?if you don’t know the person’s name, or “yours sincerely” when you do. As you get to know the person better, then “Hi John” at the start is fine, as is a more informal sign-off, such as “Regards” or “Thanks”. She says: “If you are taking the time to communicate, always top and tail your email. You should remember not to let standards drop.”

Bryant says that it is easy to be too informal with email – it is a form of communication that lulls us into an informal state of mind, perhaps because we use it for emailing friends as well as work contacts. Tone is everything, she says, but there are no hard and fast rules. As you get to know somebody better, more informality is fine.

But remember that some people – especially older people, perhaps – can expect more formality and can be baffled if you slip into the informality that a 20-year-old might expect. Remember too that in some ways an email is a blunt instrument. “When you are speaking you can use your tone to indicate humour, but it’s not always obvious on an email. I have sometimes not been sure whether somebody is joking, or angry.”

Jenny Clark, head of internal communications at PricewaterhouseCooper, led an internal email responsibility programme a couple of years ago. PwC initiated the programme when the number of emails sent per week hit 2.5m. Ninety per cent of these were internal, and 99 per cent of people admitted to sending an email to the person sitting next to them. The company suspected that a lot of unnecessary emails were being sent.

They might also have worried what effect the email deluge was having on employees. A study by researchers at King’s College London University a few years ago found that those who are constantly trying to juggle work and answer emails see their IQ reduce by 10 points.

Clark also says that it is important to think about why you are sending an email. “You are trying to build a relationship, or to maintain it,” she says. You should think about whether an email is the appropriate method for communicating what you want to say, or whether picking up the phone is better. If something is important or urgent, then again a face-to-face meeting or a phone-call is far better. Email is good for conveying information, but poor at building relationships. “For developing rapport and influencing people, nothing
beats talking”, says Clark.

Also remember that emailing is not an effective way of delegating. You cannot assume that people are actually doing the work you have asked them to. If people are not able to clarify what they were meant to do, or ask questions about the work, then they are not going to be able to do it. Plus, they will know that you took the easy route. In short, email is good for some things – like informing – but useless for influencing or inspiring people.
The other thing to remember about email is that it tends to hang about. “Before you send an email, think about whether you want to put it in writing. Remember that it can be copied, forwarded, and printed,” says Clark. Emails can come back to haunt you in a way that face-to-face conversations can’t. Just ask all those people whose emails have been pored over by the FSA. At the most basic level, an email is not deniable. Before you send an email, think about how you would feel if it was forwarded or was dragged up at a later date.

Emails you send will affect people’s view of you: if you add people to email lists that are not appropriate for them, or cc them on threads that are not relevant – especially when people start replying to all – then you might get a reputation as a time-waster. On a related point, also think about your employer before you press send. You are what the marketing people call a “brand guardian”, whether you want to be or not. Emails you send can reflect on the reputation of the company which is paying your wages. If you damage its reputation, it might not carry on doing so for much longer.

l When you write a message, make it clear why you’ve sent it, who it’s for, what action is necessary and by when you need a response. If it’s just a quick message, put the whole thing in the subject box.

l Attachments are like the cholesterol of the email system. They clog up inboxes and can make remote access a more painful experience. Try to cut down on attachments. If possible, send a link to a document or just copy the relevant part into the body of the mail.

l Give your in-box a regular once-over every few hours. Sort your in-box by sender, and respond first to emails sent specifically to you. Use the icons to help you sort your in-box. When you read an email, act on it straight away. Don’t end up having to deal with it twice.

l Graphics may look nice, but BlackBerrys don’t like pictures.

l Keep emails brief, clear, accurate and appropriate to your audience. Will they understand abbreviations or jargon? If English isn’t their first language, will they get irony or cultural references?

l When someone sends you a pointless email, take action. Ask to be left off circular emails that you don’t need to see. Remind colleagues not to CC or “reply to all” unnecessarily. Set an example. If you use email properly, you’ll get things done, and work more efficiently.