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Best Practices for Writing Great E-mail-Part 1

Start improving your e-mail effectiveness by creating and formatting easy to follow content, and by using pre‑written responses. In Part 2 of this two-part series, discover ways to avoid unnecessarily contributing to other people’s overflowing Inbox. (Note: although some of the features mentioned are specific to Outlook, most of these ideas can help you manage your e-mail and time regardless of the e-mail program you use).

Format Readable E-mail Messages

One of the keys to writing good e-mail is to empathize with your recipients. Simplify the e-mail messages you send with clean, easy-to-read formatting:

  • Get to the point. Shorten paragraphs to no more than five or six lines to reduce reading.
  • Shorter is better. Limit e-mail text to a single printed page. If you have more text, reduce the message or consider attaching a Word document. Delete previous responses that are no longer relevant to the current exchange.
  • Keep it meaningful. Modify the subject line if the thread changes and is no longer related to the original message.
  • Simple formatting. Use fonts between 10 and 12 points in size except for headlines and choose an easy to read font style. Consider bolding important information. Apply colors sparingly. In addition, unless you know the recipient also uses Outlook, understand some recipients may be seeing your message in plain text without font formatting and graphics. Add blank lines and white space to separate paragraphs and areas of detail.
  • Read your message before you send it. Run the spelling checker and re-read messages one last time for clarity and grammar before clicking Send.
  • Use High Importance sparingly. If most every message you send out is marked as High Importance, your recipients will begin to ignore your urgency.

Create Clear Content

If you want to reduce the volume of e-mail you need to handle, make sure you create clear messages. Consider these strategies to upgrade your communications with understandable, e-mail messages:

  • Better Subject Lines. Help others prioritize how to act on your e-mail by including a clear, specific subject line and repeating important subject information in the body of the message. If an action is needed, state what you want on the subject line. As a software expert, I often receive messages with a subject that just reads “question” which makes these messages hard to distinguish from unwanted spam.

    With so many people reading their messages with a handheld, also put the most important information at the front of the subject as longer subject lines may be cutoff.


Your invitation to the CBA Awards Luncheon on March 12th


CBA Awards Luncheon; please RSVP to March 12th event

  • Now What? Define your expectations in the body of the message. Do you want your recipients to act, respond, read, or is the e-mail FYI only?
  • One Topic. Include only one topic per message. If this isn’t possible, then describe and number multiple topics as in 5 items to add to the Wednesday meeting agenda. Put action items or questions on separate lines so they stand out and get noticed.
  • Watch for Automation. When you type the addresses for your message, check who is getting your e‑mail. Using the AutoComplete feature, Outlook will attempt to auto-fill an e-mail address which may not be your intended recipient.
  • Who is Your Audience? Be careful with your tone and language. As with any other communication, match the message to your audience. Unless the reader understands your dry sense of humor, for instance, they may be confused or offended rather than amused. Clearly identify yourself to strangers within your message and in the message signature.
  • BTW (By The Way). It may be tempting to use acronyms in the world of the Blackberry and IM (instant messaging), but only use extremely common abbreviations, such as FYI or ASAP, unless you are absolutely certain the individual receiving your e-mail knows what they mean.

Save Time with Prewritten Responses

If you send a few basic messages over and over again, such as a reply to a request for product information, consider saving those responses as signatures that can be inserted into e-mail so that you don’t have to retype them. For a majority of messages, create a default signature that includes your full name, position or title, phone, website, and other contact information. Depending on your business and use of Outlook, you may also want to include links or addresses for social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Applying these best practices will help you create better e-mail messages.

This article is an excerpt from my Outlook 2010 Tips, Tricks & Techniques book.

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© Dawn Bjork Buzbee, MCT, The Software Pro®

Dawn Bjork Buzbee is The Software Pro® and a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) as well as a certified Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) Master Instructor, certified Microsoft Applications Specialist (MCAS) Instructor, and a certified Microsoft Office expert. Dawn shares smart and easy ways to effectively use software through her work as a software speaker, trainer, consultant, and author of 8 books.

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