Better Email

May 04, 2018

Mark Roman
Chief Information Officer
Simon Fraser University

As SFU moves to a new email system I thought this would be a great time to talk about how we could all use email a little better. I’ve put together some suggestions designed to help us manage the seemingly infinite volume of email we all face everyday, and to help us use the tools more effectively. This post is split into three parts: how to write better email, how to use email tools properly, and how to manage your email efficiently.


Managing Email

1. Check your email at a few regularly scheduled times.

Don’t let email be an interruption.  Plan a block of time to process messages.  Email is not an immediate form of communication like texting, so don’t treat it that way.

2. Don’t write a reply if you don’t need to.

Only respond if you must. You don’t have time to respond to every message and senders must accept the fact that you are not being rude.  They should only expect a reply if they ask for one.

3. Start at the top and work your way down.

If you skip around your inbox responding to messages in random order, you will read the same message more than once.  Be sequential and be disciplined so that you touch each message only once.

4. There are only four things you can do with an email: delete, do, delegate, defer.

You should handle email in the following order.  These actions are sorted in order from least to most effort.

Delete: A lot of email simply isn’t that important and you probably don’t need to keep it, so delete it.

Do: If you can’t delete, then determine if you can respond quickly. Many messages can be responded to in 2 minutes. Do it now and move on.

Delegate: If you can’t delete and you are not the expert, delegate the message to someone who should deal with the issue.

Defer: If you can’t delete, respond, or delegate, then defer the message. Put it in an action folder.

5. Keep your filing system insanely simple.

Too many folders mean too much time figuring out where to put something and too much time remembering where you put anything.  Use only a few very broad folder categories to facilitate easy filing.  You file many more messages than you retrieve, so keep the filing simple.  When you have to retrieve something, use email’s find function to make the job easy.

Using Email

1. Email is less urgent than other mediums of communications.

If you want an immediate response, call or visit the person. Don’t expect a response to any email immediately unless you mark it as high priority.

2. Keep a separate account for personal messages.

A large portion of funding is public money, so please don’t use our data storage to file jokes and family photos.

3. Use cc: and distribution lists sparingly.  

Make sure everyone on your distribution list really needs to see the message. Otherwise, you are wasting their time and yours. The same approach applies to “Reply All” – only use that button when you really need it.

4. Use email sparingly.

Personal contact always communicates messages more accurately and builds better relationships. And a little exercise never hurt anyone. If it is practical, get up from behind your computer screen and walk over to the person you need to talk to.

5. Blind copies are considered sneaky.

If you want folks to trust you, don’t use blind copy unless you are sending it to yourself.

6. Don’t be an automatic responder.

Take time to think about how you should react to an email. Maybe sending another email is a bad idea – could you pick up the phone or go visit the sender?

7. Eliminate the middleman.

Send your message directly to the recipient – don’t ask someone else to forward it to them.

Writing Email

1. Keep your email brief.

It is much harder to write a short email than a long one, and three sentences are often enough to explain the purpose of your email. Keep your email brief and to the point by answering these questions:

  • Why are you sending the message?
  • What action do you want?
  • Who should perform the action?

2. Use one email per topic.

Recipients can respond easily with one message and the exchange of ideas is easier to track.  One message with multiple topics creates confusion in the responses and often the lower priority topics get overlooked.

3. Always include a specific subject line.

Make it easy for your reader to know what your message is about.  You will save them time so you are more likely to elicit the response you want.  Better yet – if it is possible, make your subject line the message.  For example, “Subject: Account 1234 has $999.”

4. Include alternative contact methods.

Put your cell and office phone numbers in your signature line to allow the recipient to respond quickly.

5. Summarize email threads.

If you are forwarding a series of email on to someone new, write a summary.  They don’t want to read a long list emails in reverse order, so make it easy for them with a simple explanation of the discussion thread.

6. Stick to the facts.

Avoid trying to convey any emotions in email because it never really works. Just communicate the information clearly and simply.

7. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

Would they be interested in your message? If not, re-write it or don’t send it.

8. Email might be shared where you don't intended it to be shared.

Anything you send by email can be forwarded to someone else. Be polite and professional in all your messages.

9. Distinguish between public and internal communications.

It's okay to be informal with folks you work with regularly, but be professional when you send an external message.  Your reputation and the reputation of SFU are affected by poor grammar, spelling, or punctuation.



Do you have any questions or comments about this blog post? Please fill out the form below and Mark Roman will respond to you as soon as he can.