Here are some tips on how to be a more efficient emailer, so you can spend your time on more productive tasks.
1) Get to the point quickly.
I could have started out my response to Joe like this:
Thanks for reaching out, this is a great question! I'm sorry for not clarifying this during our last conversation, but let me clear this up. We started removing the social sharing button several months ago, and here are some of the reasons we decided to do so.
That's a waste of three sentences for both me to write and Joe to read. Get. To. The. Point.
2) Use bullet points to provide succinct answers.
Dense paragraphs of text are harder to read than short bullet points. So use bullet points often to summarize ideas, data, or conclusions. If you find yourself writing a paragraph that's more than three sentences long, you're creating more work for yourself and your recipient than is necessary.
3) Let the most knowledgeable person reply first.
If you're CCed on an email, and someone else CCed would be better suited to provide an answer, it's okay to wait a day to let them reply first. It's also okay to say something like, "I'll let XYZ chime in before adding my own insight." This can save you from needing to write out an email that needs further clarification anyway.
4) Forward emails mistakenly sent to you.
I used to run our email marketing at HubSpot, and sometimes people still ask me email marketing questions. I could reply each time explaining that I now own website conversions instead, and letting them know who the correct person is to send this question to.
Instead, I reply and include the correct person on the thread, with a simple line: "Looping in XYZ who now runs our email marketing programs." This saves the sender the time of needing to rewrite or copy/paste the email to the new recipient, and gets the message across quickly for future reference.
5) Don't speculate on intent.
It's hard to read emotions in emails. So don't try. I could have assumed that Joe was blaming me for not including social share icons on our landing pages (he later confessed after he clicked send he was afraid that's what I would think). But I didn't -- I immediately thought, "Joe doesn't know the history here so I'll fill him in." Simple as that. Leave emotion out of email, both when interpreting and writing emails, as much as you can. Be logical and literal. You'll save yourself and your colleagues from a lot of angst.
6) Answer promptly.
This isn't to say that you should check your email every five minutes. Ideally, you should close or minimize your inbox so you can focus on your projects and only check your inbox a few times per day.
Don't leave emails sent specifically to you hanging for longer than 24-48 hours (excluding weekends -- work/life balance is important, folks). Letting questions linger longer than that will create an awful backlog in your inbox, and it will also frustrate the sender. He or she will need to waste time tracking you down in person, over instant messenger, or with additional follow-up emails. Keep your company's efficiency in mind, not just your own.
If you can't reply with the answer within two days, it's polite to say, "Got this, will get back to you later this week." Or you can set a "Slow to Respond" auto-responder so people will know they'll need to wait longer than usual for a reply.
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Originally published Apr 14, 2014 11:00:00 AM, updated November 20 2018