E-Mail Pointers for the Millennial Generation (And Others)

For a humorous take on how not to use e-mail at work: http://qz.com/400461/twelve-ways-to-seem-smarter-by-email/

My own suggestions follow.

Don’t reply in haste, much less in anger. Think twice before sending something you think is funny.

Proof-read; don’t rely on spell-check.

Beware of ‘bcc’, ‘reply all’, distribution lists and auto-fill for recipient names – especially when you are dealing with privileged and confidential information. Make sure metadata are scrubbed from attachments (they may not be when you use a mobile device).

Think about who needs to be copied (and who does not).

You represent your firm and yourself in every e-mail sent to third parties.

The ‘subject’ field should contain a brief but meaningful summary of the content of the message. This helps the recipient find the relevant e-mail later, when it’s buried amidst the other thousand things in the in-box. It’s also helpful to summarise the message in the first line or two of the message itself.

One subject per e-mail (this makes them easier to file and retrieve later). Short sentences, short paragraphs, short e-mails. Headings are useful.

Attachments can be annoying (especially if they are other e-mails containing their own attachments).

Use the ‘high priority’ flag very sparingly, if at all.

Be responsive, even if it’s to acknowledge receipt and say you’ll respond later at greater length.

Know when e-mail is not appropriate. If the senior partner calls you on the phone, respond in kind.

Don’t use your mobile device in meetings. It’s rude. If you have to check e-mail or deal with something, step outside.

Think about timing: don’t send and then vanish. Also remember that many people sleep with a mobile device on the bedside table. Your 4 a.m. ping may wake a sleeping client or partner.

Don’t ask recipients to check a box acknowledging that they’ve read your e-mail: it’s passive-aggressive and annoying.

Always set an ‘out of office’ message when you’re not around; this helps to manage expectations. Remember to turn it off as soon as you’re back.

Emoticons and emojis
Tone can be difficult to convey in an e-mail. What you intended as light-hearted banter can be interpreted by the recipient as a snarky comment. So, you might be tempted to resort to one of those cute little pictures that proliferate in your text messages, in order to indicate that it’s all intended in fun.

Don’t succumb to this temptation if (a) the recipient of your e-mail is older than you are, (b) the exchange is professional rather than personal or (c) both (a) and (b). Use smiley faces all you want with your assistant, your friends at another firm or the other associates in your group (but only when you’re scheduling after-works drinks, not when you’re talking about a file).

Otherwise: NO emojis.

In a business setting, e-mail can be a bit more casual than a letter or opinion, but you may want to clothe it in more formal dress when providing advice or replying in a thoughtful way. One-word or one-sentence replies are one thing, but if the message or the recipient is important, your e-mail should be more like a traditional letter.

Always use proper punctuation, capitalisation and grammar. Professional e-mail is no place for LOL, LMFAO, WTF and the like.

‘Hi Dave’ may be an appropriate opener when you’re writing to your peer at another firm, but probably not when it’s some crusty senior partner at McCarthys. ‘Dear So-and-so’ may seem a bit weird in an e-mail, but fear not that it may suggest that an affectionate relationship is being claimed.

Don’t experiment with fonts and formatting. Stick to a standard template – and always include your signature block (with a link to your LinkedIn profile and Twitter feed, if appropriate).

Taming the in-box
Create folders, arranged by client or subject. Save e-mail to your document-management system, if you can. Ruthlessly delete the unnecessary. I never have more than 10 messages in my in-box, if I can help it.

Next time: your queries answered, part 2

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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