Email Rules

Sun, October 12, 2008, 07:20 PM under Communication
Back in my MVP days before joining Microsoft I used to help out a lot on newsgroups and forums so I wrote a piece about Newsgroup Rules. The time has come to do the same for Professional Email.

Many of us work in organizations where email is the primary mode of communication dominating every other medium. For example, in Microsoft, I have yet to hear my desk phone ring and I easily send around 300 emails per week and that is far less than the amount I receive. With email being so prevalent, I would have expected every person joining large companies to immediately get training on making best use of their email client e.g. Outlook. If everybody followed a simple set of rules, we could reduce the amount of emails on the wire, which is a good thing for everyone’s time involved.

Below are the rules that everyone in my (fantasy?) world would follow. I break it down by the fields we can fill in when composing or replying to email:

TO:
1. KEEP the explicit recipient list short. The more people you add, the less chance you’ll get a reply. Who is it that really must be on the TO list? Who is it that you are expecting to take some action based on your email?
2. MOVE to CC if it is just an FYI. If you are not expecting a reply from me and you are not expecting me to take some action, I should be on the CC list not the TO list._
3. ADDRESS the TO people. If I am on the CC list, don’t talk to me – talk to the TO people. You are sending it to the TO people, not the CC people. Also, really do address the TO people: if you cannot imagine reading out loud your email to *everyone* on the TO list, then you have your TO list wrong.

CC:
4. MOVE to TO if expecting an action. If you are expecting an action/reply from me, I should be on the TO list, not the CC list. If you leave me on the CC list don't be surprised when I don’t reply promptly (because your email has gone to a folder that I empty every week).
5. REMOVE if it is not even an FYI. If I don’t even care about the topic of your email, remove me from the CC list. Don’t assume I am interested in your email to start with.
6. NOTE that when you hit Reply, Outlook cannot read your intention and make the changes suggested by the rules above: you are allowed to move people between the TO and CC fields while a thread is ongoing.

BCC:
7. DO NOT USE. Ever. Never!
8. REPLACE with two actions: Reply to the people on the TO/CC field and additionally FORWARD to the people you wanted to place on the BCC field.
As an aside, if you BCC me, your email will end up in my DELETED folder due to a rule I have setup.

SUBJECT:
9. HAVE one. Take a moment to summarize your email in a few words on the subject. If you can’t, then your email probably serves no purpose.
10. KEEP short. There is a BODY field for your diatribe, keep it out of the SUBJECT field.
11. BE specific. Subjects such as “Bug”, “Question”, “Visual Studio”, “Your blog” etc are not good subjects on their own. I should be able to distinguish your email from other emails just by looking at the SUBJECT.
12. USE hints at the start of the subjects. For example: "Action Required: xyz", "FYI: xyz"
13. AVOID changing the subject unless it is a new topic. Don’t even correct a spelling mistake (it breaks the thread).
14. DO change for new topic. If the topic has changed, then the previous rule can be broken BUT: consider keeping original in parenthesis e.g. “New topic (WAS: old topic goes here)”.

ATTACHMENTs/URLs:
15. KEEP short and small. Short URLs, small size of attachments. If you can’t keep to the previous two guidelines, group together the URLs/Attachments on an intranet site and just point to that.
16. LIMIT overall items. The more URLs/ATTACHMENTs you send, the less likely I am to look at any of them.
17. PROVIDE context. Why do you think I’d open your email attachment or click on your URL if you don’t tell me something about them? Don't assume I am interested.
18. AVOID uncommon extensions. I don’t care about the technical merits of TAR vs RAR vs ZIP. Zip is what most people have installed – use that.

BODY SIGNATURE:
19. KEEP short. When your email signature is longer than your message, you know something is wrong. Generally, a single line of text is more than enough.
20. FORMAT as text-only. In particular, no images or anything that would appear as an attachment in a text-only client.

BODY FORMATTING:
21. AVOID fancy backgrounds. White works.
22. AVOID funky fonts.
23. DON'T USE shortcuts as if you are writing a TXT or IM message. For example, "R u going 2 rpl to that eml?" should be "Are you going to reply to that email?". You are exchanging emails with professionals here, not your family. Using standard acronyms (e.g. LOL, AFAIK) can be OK though.
37. DO NOT UNDERLINE unless it is a URL you are underlying. In this internet age, people try to click on underlined words. Instead if you want to emphasize something use highlight, boldness and italics.

BODY:
24. AVOID long text. There is a threshold for the length of an email after which nobody reads it.
25. HAVE structure (paragraphs were invented with good reason).
26. USE spelling and grammar tools.
27. CONSIDER using bullets.
28. CLARIFY the purpose of your email: Are you blocked and need someone to unblock you or looking for an answer to a question or for someone to take action or just reporting some status or sharing some information etc.
29. ANTICIPATE follow up questions. If you are going to send me an email saying that "it doesn't work", you can bet that my reply will be "in what way doesn't it work and what have you tried already?". Anticipate and provide that info up front.
30. VERIFY that you really need to send the email. Are you looking for information that your favorite search engine can provide you with? Does the answer already exist in your inbox? Does the information exist on your intranet?
36. DO NOT INCLUDE a body if the subject says it all. Write <eom> in the body for “end of message” or at the end of your subject. If the subject says it all and the attachment is valuable, include, <attached> or <attached, eom>

HITTING SEND:
31. DO REPLY within 24 hours to any email that lists you and only you on the TO line. Try to do the same for emails that include you on the TO line amongst others.
32. SET expectation of when you will have a final reply or an update, if you cannot get the answer within 24 hours.
33. SETUP Out Of Office auto-replies when you are not checking your email as often as usual.
34. READ your composed email before hitting SEND. 1% of all emails I compose do not get sent after I re-read them and 25% I tweak for clarity after reading them. I bet you'll have similar experience if you do this for emails you compose.
35. DON'T SEND while experiencing negative emotions - anger, fear, grievance, annoyance, etc. Only send the email when you can calmly and professionally review your thoughts first.

Finally, specifically for Microsoft colleagues that use our internal DLs:
a) Realize that even if you are not a member of the DL, you will get a reply to your question. The only way you wouldn’t, is if someone explicitly removed you from the TO field which I have never seen happen. So stop asking: “I am not a member of this DL please Include me in the reply”.
b) Stop stating: “Remove/Add me to this DL”. One word for you: autogroup.

Do you agree/disagree with any of the above? Have you got any other guidelines that you would add to the list?
Sunday, October 12, 2008 8:48:00 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Excellent as usual.
Monday, October 13, 2008 10:25:00 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
While I agree that overly long signatures are irritating, some people don't have a choice. I used to work for an FSA regulated company and our signature had to have all sorts of disclaimers and legal mumbo-jumbo in it.

Personally, I like the feature of Outlook that allows me to have one signature for new messages (which has my contact information in it) and another for replies (which is a simple, name & position, hyperlinked to the appropriate website for brevity)
Tuesday, October 14, 2008 11:55:00 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
:) nice stuff!

A small notice for
36. DO NOT INCLUDE a body if the subject says it all.

In this case you should always have this [eom] in the end of the subject


2Colin:
Most likely, irritating are the long signatures you see in emails from people working at your company. All that legal gobbledegook at the bottom could probably make a difference but only if the email is sent outside. So, I believe the footer should be automatically added to any email sent to the outside world, by the email server.
Monday, October 20, 2008 9:00:00 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Very good! nice stuff
Mayur Tendulkar
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 2:25:00 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Hmmm, good compilation of "must follow" rules.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 2:36:00 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
You didn't mention the use of read receipts - I go out of my way to treat these mails with a lower priority :)
Simon
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 8:01:00 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
I totally agree with this, especially the part about the subject. I currently have two problems with work e-mail. One problem is the barrage of e-mails that a certain set of individuals send out with subjects like "hey" or "can you look at this" but give no hint as to what it is about.
Joel Ivory Johnson
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 8:20:00 AM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
I wonder how your british assertive tone of writing is received by your colleagues there... :-)
Anonymous
Thursday, October 30, 2008 8:14:00 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
People often remove the sender...has happened to me more than once.

I always include "I'm not on this alias...." if I'm not a part of the DL
Anonymous
Monday, November 03, 2008 9:04:25 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Colin Angus Mackay: The annoying thing is when people leave those own even for internal email.

Andrew: The [eom] is a good point and it was in the post but it got stripped out cause I used chevrons. I have now escaped them so they appear.

nirajrules, Mayur Tendulkar, Vikram Pendse, Joel Ivory Johnson: Glad you agree :-)

Simon: good point!

Anonymous: My assertive tone (of writing and real life) comes from my Greek heritage, the British are quite the opposite… and I actually find my US colleagues quite accepting of it (or at least tolerant!)
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