Are You an Effective Email Reader? Eight Rules for Reading and Responding to Emails

Is email making us lazy, unprofessional and discourteous, instead of efficient?

Many of us think, “hey, it’s email, so I don’t need to be formal. I don’t need paragraphs or extra spacing. Don’t need a salutation or a proper closing. I don’t need punctuation – it’s just email and I’m in a rush. Isn’t that the beauty of this electronic communication?”

Emails are efficient. We can communicate with someone who may not be available by phone at that time and they can communicate right back at us, in the middle of the night, if they so desire. I can toss off a number of emails in the time it takes me to find a person’s phone number, dial it, and go through a variety of gyrations to actually reach a person or his voicemail. And, with email there is a paper trail – something to easily refer back to.

However, I sometimes wonder if I use email because it is easier than dealing directly with another person? I can ask the harder questions, share difficult news without “fear” of retaliation or heated discussion. Are my conflict resolution inadequacies being reinforced? Okay, that’s a whole other discussion for another time.

We’re Inundated with Emails

The not surprising truth is we are bombarded with email daily. There were 306.4 billion emails sent and received daily in 2020 (source: Statista).

I expect this has something to do with why many people just breeze through their emails without really reading them. There are just too many of them. And, having seen some poorly written emails, I can understand why.

It’s clear to me that many people just don’t read their emails regardless of how clear they are. Using short, concise sentences, with appropriate bolding of key items, numbering of questions asked or bullets of information is no guarantee you won’t get a return email with your questions unanswered or requests for information you clearly laid out in the email to which they are replying. I have seen this happen so often, it got me wondering…why? 

I’m conjecturing that with the number of emails flying at us daily, we are just skimming many at best, with an attempt to get them answered and off our to do list. The problem is many times we sabotage our own attempts of being more efficient and achieve the direct opposite, creating more questions or confusion and thus the need for more emails.

Email is Not a One-Way Street:  Eight Rules for Email Readers

This has led me to think that email is not a one-way street. We learn many things about creating a good email (check out Communico’s MAGIC Email Writing Program), but how are we doing as a recipient reader? Perhaps there is etiquette to apply there as well.

A short footnote here:  as more and more people adopt good email writing skills, it will make the reader’s job easier; however, we are not off the hook because an email is poorly written.

So, I came up with my own “rules” for reading emails effectively. Before you respond to any email, answer the following eight questions:

  1. What is asked of me in this email?
  2. When do they need a response?
  3. Can I deliver? If so, how can I say that in a way that is clear and concise? If not, what alternatives and suggestions can I share? What else can I do or when can I do it?
  4. Did the writer refer to a document already sent? A previous email? If so, make an attempt to find it instead of simply asking for another copy. It shows you value their time as much as your own.
  5. Do I need time to consider my response? If so, take it. You want your reply to indicate you have read and understood what was sent to/asked of you. 
  6. Before hitting send, read your response and ask yourself, “Did I answer ALL questions?” If not, edit the response to be sure it is complete. If you cannot answer all the questions, did you acknowledge the one(s) you couldn’t (and tell why or give a timeframe for providing an answer)?
  7. Can the person read my reply easily? This of course follows the same etiquette rules of creating the original email, but I have found that sometimes people are more careless when they reply versus when they create. For example:
    • Check your format. Have you put spaces between paragraphs? Do you have a closing? Do you have any typos or misspelled words?
    • Check your content. Is your response clear? Can the reader easily understand the point you are making? If there are numbered questions, reply using the same numbers as referenced. Or, it is perfectly appropriate to type in your responses in a different color right next to the question. Is there a long thread of emails that could be confusing or frustrating for your reader? If so, forward just the last two message or summarize the situation in your response.
  8. As a final question, ask yourself, “Is there anything about this reply that would frustrate the recipient?” If so, step back and rewrite it. You and your reader will be glad you did.

The Big Question for All Who Create or Reply to Emails

In our desire to be more efficient, I think the big question for those creating or replying is the same: Have I done all I can to pre-empt unnecessary emails?

If a client asks a question to which you have a speedy reply, it’s worth taking a moment to go the next step – is there an obvious next question I can answer now?   A simplistic example:  a client asks you if you take credit cards. You could say “yes,” or you could say “yes, we take MasterCard and Visa.” Thus pre-empting another request as to which cards.

Final Thought Think one step ahead, give more than requested. It not only may prevent some extraneous back and forth emailing (= time wasted), but also leave your client/colleague feeling cared for and valued (= time well spent). In this world of tweets, texts and tweet/text-like emails, you will certainly standout and save time for the both of you!

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