I admit I become complacent about how I write emails to colleagues. I especially find it hard to write good emails after a long day of painstakingly editing other people’s content or writing my own policy documents or product descriptions. I get brain-fatigue, and I figure that my colleagues will forgive my lazy email writing. However, because I also admit to occasional feelings of paranoia, I worry maybe they are talking…or emailing…about me behind my back. So, I think I’d better shape up. At least until next month.
So, think of this article serves as a gentle reminder (that’s how I’m thinking of it) about best practices of email writing. And you too can justify spending a morning reading comics about email.
Research Method: Internet Comic Data
We can actually learn quite a lot in a painless, albeit sarcastic, way by reading comics about workplace writing. Take it from me, I’ve researched this topic and found many—copyrighted—examples that teach the “right” way to write email by complaining about “bad” emails. To see my sources of comic information—sometimes called “data”–type this search phrase into your browser window: <email comics>.
THE Rule: Keep it short and simple
After my semi-exhaustive internet search of comics about emails on the web, I have come to a few conclusions. For example, to make sure that our email readers actually read our emails, follow the wishes of several copyrighted comic strip characters:
- Keep emails short
- Never write long paragraphs in emails
- Stick to one topic per email
In other words, stop writing long emails. And stop writing long paragraphs, unless you want to sound as if your email is coming from a spam-bank. Stop asking a pile of questions and scattering them like autumn leaves on your front lawn. And stop writing about more than one topic in an email.
Tip #1: Death to Long Paragraphs
A long paragraph has more than a few lines in it. A long paragraph cannot breathe. A long paragraph causes death. A short paragraph saves lives.
A short paragraph can have one sentence in it and save even more lives.
Tip #2: One Topic…One Email
One copyrighted comic strip character (this cubicle-dwelling character has a boss with devilish hair)has a lot to say about. The cubicle man refuses to read messages with too many topics and with no paragraph breaks.
To help you remember to stick to one topic per email, I suggest you have your local ink artist tattoo this on the back of your hand:
“One Topic…One Email”
Tip #3: Make Action Items Pop and Put Them All in One Place
That same comic strip character gets really angry when he gets email with too many questions sprinkled all over them. Questions are “action items.” You want your readers to act upon these requests, so don’t make them hunt for them. Instead, put them in one place like this:
Here are my questions for you:
1. Are you coming to the awards banquet?
2. Are you bringing one or more guests?
3. Which rubber mystery protein do you want for dinner?
Tip #4: Tell Them When and How to Respond
A different copyrighted comic strip character from the folks at Grantland.net, where you can purchase some business-related comics and safety posters, gets angry when his readers don’t answer his email within something like 72 seconds after sending it. Break the anger cycle by telling your readers when you need a response and how you want that response.
Notice that this fabricated email author below has broken the Laws of Email, writing “send” (vague), “EOB” (annoying acronym) and “tomorrow” (also vague, and the IRS can tell you what tax evaders call vagueness—a loophole).
Notice how many loopholes I closed in the revision below.
Checklists are good. Checklists are useful. To avoid the ire of the email reader, make responding to you easy. Complete this mental checklist for each email you send:
- action items easy to find
- response time clear
- response method clear
So remember, if I ever send you an email that breaks the Laws of Email, please forgive me. And I will do the same for you… especially if you make that an action item.
To do: Forgive me
By: 4 PM (Central Time) Friday, October 13