How Not to Suck at Email

You probably suck at email.

How not to suck at email - Matt McWilliams
You probably suck at email. Here are four ways that will help you not to suck. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

Statistically, it’s a safe bet that you do. The overwhelming majority of people I know suck at email. Grandmothers who just got a computer earlier this year and forward me emails about cats. CEOs who have been online since the mid-90’s. Customer service people who send and receive over 100 emails every day. Most of them suck at email.

There is a good chance that you know that email could be better. You could do it better and you could teach others to do it better. For most people, if we improved our email skills by just 20% and those around us did as well, we could save 2-5 hours every week in lost productivity, not to mention reduce our stress and greatly improve our relationships.

Here are four ways that will help you not to suck at email:

  1. Use BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front. It’s a military term that means you should make your most important point first. Lead with the conclusion or recommendation. Here are two short email examples that show you how to use BLUF:

Email One (wrong)

Dear Jim,

So I was thinking last night after our meeting. I went home and ran some numbers and they really shocked me.

—Blah, blah, supporting information and chatter, blah, blah.—

Can you believe that? A 30% increase!

So, I propose that we (finally the point) create two news sales positions by May 1. I think that this will accomplish such and such…

Email Two (right)

Dear Jim,

I believe that we should create two news sales positions by May 1. Here is why:

—Supporting information—


That is BLUF in a nutshell. If you start using it, others will pick up on it as well.

  1. Pick up the phone! If a thread has more than three total replies, pick up the phone. If you are confused by a question, don’t start an email with “Joe, I don’t understand.” Pick up the phone. If someone has offended you, pick up the phone. Do not fire off an angry reply. If you are struggling to write the email, pick up the phone and talk through it. You do still have a phone, right? Then use it.
  2. SORTA – Stamp Out Reply to All. Reply to All is Neanderthal. I got this one from Tim Sanders. Tim says Replying to All is a sure sign that you are over 30. It’s a terrible habit.

Tim points to research that shows that only 10% of reply to all message are used properly. My experience shows this is true. Research shows that upwards of 2% of the bandwidth checks written every month by companies across the world are spent on poorly used Reply to All messages. That is pathetic.

If you are replying to someone to say “Thanks” or “awesome” or “great news” or “way to go” or something like that, do not use Reply All…ever. Please.

If there are 6 people on an email and only 3 need a reply, take off the other 3. If a reply is addressed to a specific person (especially in the case of emails like “That’s great news Jim, thanks for sharing.”), do not – ever – choose Reply to All.

Seriously, I get 5-10 emails every day like this. Two things inevitably happen. First, I get annoyed. Yes, I have a delete button and I know how to use it, but it’s still annoying to have to glance at an utterly irrelevant email. Second, I create a rule to filter out messages with that subject line after a while. Who knows, I might miss a worthwhile email at some point.

  1. Include an explanation on forwarded emails. Please do not just forward an email to me and expect me to understand it or force me to read through 10 minutes of the email thread. Include a brief intro. What is it about? What have you done about it? What do you want me to do about it? The only time forwarding an email without additional information is acceptable is if we are on the phone and you have explained it to me or if it is a common occurrence (i.e. certain emails that are always forwarded).

If you do those four things only, you will suck a lot less at email, but I have four more ways to suck less at email for you right here.

Are you using any of these four techniques? Which of these do you see violated the most?

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  • I completely agree that the phone is underused in this day and age.

    My pet peeve?

    Ring-ring. “Hello?” “Hey, I just sent you an email about….” and then a lengthy description of the email. The only reason to do this is to either (a) gather your thoughts before you talk to me, in which case you can do that privately without sending them to me or (b) accountability a/k/a CYA, in which case you should send the email as a follow-up to our conversation.

    Great points all, though. I’m thankful all my email clients make reply-all kinda difficult. Just yesterday I got in trouble for not including the original email discussion list in a reply which ended up going to just a single individual, a very appropriate time to reply-all.

    • I’m an email kinda gal. The lack of phone usage drives my husband nuts, so I’m trying to learn more from him. However, I do tend to spend a LOT more time on the phone than I would with a tailored, well-thought and spell-checked email.

      However… If you follow the same rules you mentioned, you can be successful on your phone conversations. Great stuff Bret!!

    • You ruined my lunch Bret…was planning on having rice but it’s BURRRNT.

  • How teaching the people you do business with that email is not a request for an instant response? It’s mail. It is supposed to NOT be urgent.

  • Haha you are trying to improve your own email correspondence from others. Very sneaky! Great and informative post.

    • TO and FROM.

      Actually in writing this I was reminded of one that I had slipped on…coming tomorrow!

      It’s holding me accountable too. I screwed up SORTA (#3 above) earlier this week.

  • One of my pet peeves is the forwarded email with no explanation – I am more likely to delete without exploring if I’m left feeling like “so what am I supposed to do with this?” Great points, and wish more people would abide by these rules!

    • No kidding.

      One that I did not include today or tomorrow but piggy backs on that one is when people get mad at me for not replying when they never asked for a reply.
      There are only three things that elicit a reply:
      1. A Question2. A request for a reply (i.e. please share your thoughts)3. Something that sparks such serious thought that it naturally leads to a conversation
      “Here’s an interesting article about starting a board of directors” is not an invitation to answer, share my thoughts, or all that interesting that I feel obligated to reply.

      • Yes, and the opposite is true too – hate when I get a reply that I didn’t ask for. Had a former team member who responded to EVERY email – even if it was just a thanks – really? You are filling up my email box with this? Overkill.

  • Burnt rice for breakfast today! BLUF – Got it. I’ll reach out for the sharpie and write down on forehead.

    • Make sure to write it backwards so you can read it in the mirror!

  • You’ll probably like

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a bit… Our team is completely remote and in vastly different time zones. I honestly.think more businesses will be structured this way in the future. For our team, email is critical! So is over communication.

    I agree with all your points here, but I have concerns about #3. I remember Tim Sanders giving that talk during a devotional at Lampo, and I didn’t quite buy it then either. For a larger team? Sure. For a small team… I’d prefer to let the recipient ask to be removed from the thread or skim it and move on. We have a lot of projects going on that impact team members in various ways. I’ve often seen more confusion when someone started out on a reply-all but then got dropped off later. When they re-enter the conversation, there’s a lot that needs to be cleaned up (it can get messy).

    Communication is like the blood flowing through the veins of your company. If the phone and live chat aren’t an option, email is it. It’s the record of what was discussed and decided. We’ve done entire product plan discussions via email. It’s challenging, but it can work.

    Granted, if you’re including people that have no business being included.. well that’s just stupid. :)

    • I remember that devotional (Shhhh…don’t tell Dave but I got my hands on a few of the mp3s from an unnamed person who may or may not be married to me)

      I think you are on to something…here is what I propose…it’s a discuss that needs to take place. I think Tim’s message is that the improper usage needs to be stamped out, not all of it.

      When I was on the executive team at HometownQuotes, we usually DID use reply all. There were only three of us. If we sent a message to the other two, there was a reason. NOT replying to all would be inappropriate. Same thing with any team.

      In the long run, ground rules should be laid. Small teams might only use it improperly 20% of the time (or less). Large teams 50-95%.

      • I really should have downloaded all the devos before leaving. :)

        Yeah, I like those percentages. Also, for a small team 20% is not big deal. For a large team, _everything_ done wrong is a big deal.

        Good discussion indeed.

        Great post, btw.

        • “for a small team 20% is not big deal. For a large team, _everything_ done wrong is a big deal.”

          Well said sir.

  • Pick up the phone – this is huge. We are moving towards a generation that is forgetting how to communicate face-to-face and voice-to-voice. Stop typing. Go stand face-to-face with someone or pick up the phone. God have us two ears and a mouth – to first listen and then to speak.

  • I’m 34. I reply all. AND I suck at it. I’m always messing it up. These are great tips! :)

    • Don’t feel bad. I point out below that I forget my own “rules” about 84% of the time.

      Keep learning (make sure to read today’s post too) and try to get a little better. Eventually that little birdie will kick in and say “do you really want to reply all to this?” and you’ll have arrived :)

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