Making the “e” in e-mail stand for “effective” many e-mails do you receive in a day?  How many e-mails do you think your supervisor receives in a day?  A typical supervisor might receive well over 100 e-mails every day.  What can you do to help make e-mail an effective communication tool between you and your supervisor when your supervisor has so many messages to deal with?

The Thesis Whisperer has discussed this a couple of times, with excellent posts on a supervisor’s perspective on the “tyranny of tiny tasks” that often result from e-mail, and inter-cultural e-mail communication.  Here are some additional strategies that I use when communicating with colleagues (including academic colleagues) by e-mail.

  • Separate topics into different e-mails.  This one’s a bit counter-intuitive, but who hasn’t written an e-mail with three clearly expressed questions and only received answers to one or two of them?  If questions are on the same topic, then I put them in the same message, but if I’m following up on a meeting where we discussed many different unrelated topics, I will often send two or three e-mails for the different themes.  This allows the recipient to deal with messages by theme as convenient for them, but also means that a reply to one quick question isn’t held up while a more substantial response to another is considered.
  • Use a helpful subject line.  This is a lot easier when the topic of the e-mail is clearly delineated (see previous).   A subject line which clearly indicates the topic discussed in the message helps the recipient to understand why they are receiving this e-mail before they have opened it, and also helps me to remember what it was about when I receive the reply!
  • Greeting.  I tend not to worry about this too much (usually using “Hello,”; “Hi [firstname],”; “[firstname]” fairly interchangeably) but I do always use one.  If I’m contacting someone for the first time, I almost always use “Dear [firstname],”.
  • Get to the point as quickly as possible.  If I can, I start my e-mail with the question or call to action that is the reason for my message.  If an explanation or context is required, I put this afterwards, so that the recipient already knows why they are being given this information, and can skim read it if they’re short of time.
  • Keep it short.  If a lengthy explanation isn’t required, I don’t include it.  None of my most recent 10 sent messages is longer than 150 words, and most of them are fewer than 50.
  • Break up the text.  I try not to include long paragraphs of text.  If I need to communicate a lot of information, I use bullet points or sub-headings to make it easy to read and navigate.
  • Signing off.  My usual sign-off is either “Thanks,” (if I’ve asked for something) or “Best wishes,”.
  • Proof-read.  I always read through my e-mail before sending, and often move things around or delete some unnecessary text at this point.  For important e-mails or messages going to multiple recipients, I often save the draft and come back to proof-read later with “fresh eyes”.  Effective communication of all kinds requires a bit of time and effort, and e-mail is no different, despite how easy it can seem to dash off a quick message…

What do you think makes a good e-mail?  What tips have you found most useful in communicating effectively using this medium?

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Helen Kara

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