How 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?