Email – With great power comes great responsibility

How many times have you received or written a quick email that turned into a stream of (un?)consciousness?

I'm going to share some quick tips about better email communication and things I've picked up and am still trying to master myself.

Some of these ideas came from the wonderful podcast by Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin - Back to Work

Subject Line

Pretend you're the recipient, or in all likelihood you'll get a reply to this email you're masterfully composing, this helps everyone.  Ever seen this Re:Re:Fwd:Re: meeting???? , yeah, you're gonna have a bad day.  Actually if you have those in your inbox you are having a bad day, who are we kidding?

How Can We Make It Better?

<Topic> | <Project>

Wow, that's nice.  If you and your team can implement this you can quickly scan your inbox and know exactly what you have going on.  Not digging into each cryptic email slowly dying inside.

Credit for this came from working with a partner company of ours Lynsey 

Body Content

There are a few reasons for writing an email:

  • We need to exchange ideas / information (is an email best for this?)
  • We need to meet / call 
  • Here are the notes from our meeting
  • Here is a file
  • Something is broke
  • I need something done
  • Hi Mom

I'd like to give some tips on a few of these email use cases, and since this is my blog, I'm going to do that, please protest in the comments.

We Need To Meet / Call

Quickly summarize the purpose of the meeting and provide a a few bullet points as discussion topics.  If you can't come up with these, you have no business having the call or meeting.  Providing these topics lets everyone involved be prepared and ultimately more productive and reduces future or ongoing email.

Then provide a few times when you're free, if you have shared calendars look and see what you think others may have free.

Subject: Planning Meeting | Smithers Project

  • Topic 1
  • Topic 2
  • Topic 3

I don't think we should spend more than 30 minutes on this, maybe a call is fine?

Notes From The Meeting

After a meeting with two or more people (any less it's just a journal) you should be sending a quick email to everyone with actionable items and who is responsible for each.  

Subject: Notes  | Planning Meeting | Smithers Project

[ ] (Jane) - Needs to review TPS reports for proper cover sheets
[ ] (Bill ) - Get vendor quotes for Smithers Banquet
[ ] (Richard) - Get attendee list

Thanks, everyone.

The nice thing here is, guess what happens next meeting? Review this email.

Something Is Broke

As web developers we see this quite a bit.  I'm going to try my best to get off my soap box a bit.

Our most common response email that can be eliminated is us asking for clarification.  Any email asking for someone to fix something should include these items:

  • What are the symptoms of the problem
  • What did you try to fix or further diagnose?
  • What circumstances bring about the problem

Subject: Nav Buttons obscured | Website | Smithers Project

When I goto the website try to click on the donate a kidney button and nothing happens.

I tried other pages, but it seems like this is the same way on all pages, additionally I restarted my computer for good measure.  Still no luck.

I'm on Windows 7 using Internet Explorer 9 (I think?)

Thanks for looking into this.


This is great, we have a good picture of what is wrong, how to reproduce it and the next email reply will be "Fixed." 

I Need Something Done

There is a pattern of brevity forming here, reading email is not work for most of us, it's the stuff we do to figure out what to work on mostly.  This email should be similar to the previous identifying quickly what you need how it should function and the use case if at all possible.

Subject: Guest Menu Feature | Website | Smithers Project

During our planning meeting we thought the guests should be able to actively configure thier menu options during the RSVP process.

We need a simple form with check boxes and each dining option, these may be changing so keep that in mind. Results need to be associated with the guest for hand off to the caterer.

During the RSVP process the guest should be getting an email, can your provide us with a link directly to the menu options in case some people already pre-registered.  Our goal here is to reduce the overall waste and keep this within budget.

We might have a few more questions here, but largely we can start brainstorming on the solution right away.  It's also nice to have the big picture on a project, feature, task because as the primary practitioner of our craft we might have insight to do things faster/cheaper or in a more flexible way.  It's like G.I.Joe said "Knowing is half the battle".

Hi Mom

When was the last time you wrote or called your mom? Include pictures even if it's you and your cat. Write in detail about going to pet store and letting him pick out his own food, she'll love it.  

Sorry I'm out of time, I need to call my mom.

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