How Not to Suck at Email – Part Two

You still probably suck at email. Even if you read yesterday’s post.

Here are four more tips to help you stop sucking at email. If you follow these four tips and yesterday’s tips, your email will improve drastically, your stress levels will lower, and your relationships will be much better.

How Not to Suck at Email - Matt McWilliams

Use these email tips and you are well on your way to a more productive, less stressful life.
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When you’re done reading, share your tips below in the comments. Together, we can lead our colleagues, bosses, friends and family to stop the email madness.

Here are four more tips to help you not suck at email:

  1. Don’t Copy Others So Often. Stop copying everyone and their grandmother. I think the single worst feature built-in to Gmail is the “Do you want to also add ___?” link every time I enter someone’s email. I love Gmail, but this feature is probably responsible for 5% of unnecessary copying in the world right now. Here are my rules for copying others on email:
  • Don’t ever copy over someone’s head. Seriously, this is the ultimate way to look like a little brother or sister running to mommy or daddy. If you criticize someone over email or to “remind” them they forgot a meeting or whatever and copy their boss just to “let them know,” you suck. You know why you are doing it, you little tattle tale punk. (Can you tell, this is a hot button issue for me…and did I mention that I may or may not have done this about 1000 times…Hi I’m Matt and I used to suck at email and be a little tattle tale punk).
  • If you have to think “oh wait, I almost forgot to add so-and-so,” odds are you should leave them off.
  • If you are CC’ing someone as an “FYI,” send them a separate email about it. Don’t make them try to figure out the intent or clutter their inbox with emails not even addressed to them. Just send them a quick heads up that you are about to enter them into a thread they know nothing about. Highlight a few important points from the other emails and ask them if they would prefer to be included or not included. You can also do this with a quick phone call.
  • 99% of them time, it is not a good idea to CC someone on an email thread that is already going, especially without explaining in advance. It’s a time waster. Stop it.

Regarding the last two, if you must add someone, do the following:

  • Tell the other person (or people) that you have added someone. “I have added Jim to this email as he is the best person to help.”
  • Tell the person what is going on. “Jim, here are the highlights of what Fred has been asking about.” Then copy/paste (yes this means YOU will do the work, not Jim) the relevant information from the thread. Don’t make the newly copied person have to read through all of your replies below.
  • Pull them off the thread as soon as it makes sense.
  1. No bad news over email. Like SORTA (Stamp Out Reply to All) yesterday, I stole this one from Tim Sanders. Tim says email is only for saying “yes,” “maybe,” or sharing harmless information. He is right. No more bad reports or terrible news or angry rants via email. I don’t care if you are conflict adverse or don’t do well in meetings. Grow up. You are an adult. If you can’t share something bad or offer negative feedback face-to-face or over a video call, don’t do it at all.
  2. Use EOM and DNR. If it’s a short email or does not need a reply, tell me in the subject. Use EOM to signify “End of Message” meaning the entire message is in the subject. DNR means “Do Not Reply.” This means I do not want or expect a reply, in fact I am begging you NOT to reply. No need to say “thanks” or anything like that.

Here are some examples:

Email One (without EOM)

Subject: Tonight’s Dinner

Message: All,

Tonight’s dinner is cancelled. More details soon.

Email Two (with EOM)

Subject: Tonight’s dinner is cancelled. More details soon. EOM

Email Using DNR

Subject: DNR – March Final Google Numbers

Message: Here are March’s final numbers for our Google ads.

This saves you from feeling the need to reply.

I introduced both of these concepts to my team at one company and everyone was immediately on board with it. These two changes cut email volume significantly.

NOTE: These are the only two that you must inform others about. Otherwise, no one will understand what those acronyms mean.

  1. Use Clear and Explanatory Subject Lines. Do you have important news? Then, by all means, say so in your subject line. Hiding a vital correspondence behind a “Subject Line: Hey” is not doing anyone any favors — except for your competition.

Bad Subject Lines I’ve Recently Seen (and perhaps used…oops):


Good Subject Lines I’ve Seen Recently:

“Updates to Today’s Meeting Agenda”
“Consulting Fees With NDA”
“Great Article on Phone System Options”

I will open those and know what to expect when I do. It helps me prioritize your email. Good subjects naturally go toward the top. Bad ones go to the “read it when I get a chance” pile.

So there you have it. Eight tips in total to improve your email that you can start using today. You may choose to start doing them on your own or to include others. Either way, you are well on your way to a more streamlined inbox and a more productive, less stressful life.

What have you done to improve your experience with email? Share your tips below.

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  • Let me share an anecdote about copying over someone’s head. It also illustrates the missing 9th tip about email — Never Email Angry™.

    I had been trying to get a software vendor to help with a problem. After several emails back and forth, and phone calls too, I threw up my hands in frustration and emailed the product manager and one or two of the developers saying, “I just don’t think they give a rat’s a– about us down here.” And I left for the day.

    When I came in the next morning, my inbox was filled with replies to that email, because the PM had taken it and included no fewer than 20 additional recipients when he wrote me back to savage me, including his boss, his customer, my boss, my customer (this was a federal contract, so all the relationships are complicated) and many other influential people all of whom wanted to know what was up. And I looked like a chump because I was inflammatory.

    So I did wrong by not taking time to consider my comments, and the outcome I wanted to achieve before I sent the message. He did wrong by taking a private email and making it public. Sadly, in this instance, it worked out better for him than me, though my customer privately told me, “I’d have done the same thing. Just think carefully before you hit ‘send’ next time.”

    • Nasty-grams.

      I touched on it in point #6 (No Bad News Over Email) but you are right.

      This has been one of my hardest to overcome things but I can honestly say that I have not sent an angry email in over two years. I have typed some, but never sent.

      Do what Tim Sanders says…keep the safety on. Take everyone out of the TO and CC and BCC fields before you type, just in case it saves your drafts.

      Or write it in Word or Notepad or whatever if you really want to write something and not send it.

  • You’re also right about informing others about your acronyms. Here, we have one guy who frequently sticks “(n/t)” at the end of his subjects. I finally asked, and it means “no text”. Whodathunkit?

  • Love the idea of the EOM and DNR – can’t tell you how many times my box is filled with folks saying “thanks”. And probably my favorite is #8 and the clear subject lines. I appreciate it when colleagues are clear so that I know what to expect and how urgent the email is based on the subject line. Maybe 8 1/2 should be only use high priority when it is high priority – used to have a co-worker who evidently thought every one of her emails was urgent. Made me want to leave hers for last. Great posts!

    • HAHA I have never used High Priority in my entire life. A High Priority email is an oxymoron.

  • Great tips! I really like the no bad news over email. I hate reading that stuff. I would rather get a phone call and be able to discuss the issue and come to a resolution in 5 minutes versus all day emailing back and forth.

    • Not to mention all the time spent thinking about the email they sent, the one you want to write, then regretting sending it.

      And that assumes you don’t forward it to the boss or HR director or spouse. Email gets messy. Meetings and calls, not so much.

  • I’m working on picking up the phone first before I get into the fray of an e-mail back and forth. What happened to talking to each other?

    • Talking might take up to 20 minutes… email is always less than 2. Personally email or im is faster and more efficient.

      • I have to disagree on that. You might be right sometimes. I might pop an email that gets a reply and ends there, whereas a phone call might actually lead to a conversation that builds the relationship (gasp!).

        But especially when one involves anger, bad news, etc. picking up the phone is best. Back and forth angry emails not only take the combined hours or writing, editing, reading and re-reading the emails, but the time and productivity lost in between thinking about them. One phone call or meeting that takes 10-20 minutes kills all of that.

      • Email or IM may seem quicker and more efficient, but it is part of what’s destroying meaningful communication. We have to get out there and communicate vocally (face-to-face). Kids these days are growing up lacking the skill to talk to each other. EMail should be used as a follow-up tool for a voice-to-voice communication. Efficiency doesn’t always mean effective.

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