I was giving one of my favorite keynote speeches last week. It’s called, “Change Has Changed,” and it’s about the different ways you need to manage people when change is constant. I spend time at the end talking about the importance of resilience and one of the topics that often comes up is how email is destroying our resilience (and maybe ruining our will to live). For the first time last week, I had enough time to go into some of the guidelines and techniques I recommend to improve email on a team. I thought I’d share them with you.

How to Stop Email from Sucking

Focus on the Receiver

To make email work for you, make it work for the person you’re sending it to. As you type the name of the recipient into the To: line, start thinking about what they need from this email so they can give you what you need. Yup, it’s the classic help me help you situation.

Pick Your Verb

Pick a verb that is the most important action for your reader. Do you want them to decide, review, validate, choose, edit, suggest, or approve? As you write the email, make sure that action is front and center so the receiver knows how to triage, digest, and act upon your message.

Use Standardized Headers

The most important part of your email is the subject line. If your whole team adopts a standard format for subject lines, your inboxes will get much easier to manage.

Here are the ones I like:
Action Required COB: This means you need this email to be read and responded to before close of business. Anything in this category must be dealt with before the end of the standard working day (e.g., 5:00pm or whatever the end-of-day is for you). These are often actions that require you to do something with the response the same day. Receivers shouldn’t walk out the door until these are done. (So, use this header sparingly.)
Action Required EOD: This means the email contains something that is important to the next day’s work. While EOD stands for end of day, and would therefore mean 11:59pm, I interpret this one as before start-of-day tomorrow. If the sender starts working at 8:00am, it needs to be in their inbox at 7:59am.
Action Required Date: For anything other than COB or EOD, use a specific time or date to give your audience clarity about when you need a response.
Primer for x: This means the email contains information that needs to be read before another event. It means that there isn’t an email response required, but it will be an important primer for something you’re doing.
FYI: This means the email is of low urgency and can be filed and read later, if needed. When this is accompanied by a good subject line, it facilitates search and retrieval if and when the information becomes important.

Make Subject Lines Informative

After the header, include enough information to allow the receiver to triage the message. This is where your verbs from above come in. A clear verb and a specific noun make for a good subject line.

For example:
Action Required COB: Choose Presentation Title
Action Required Friday 14th: Validate ERP project committee membership
Primer for Friday Bid Meeting: Read Context for Bid go no-go decision
FYI: New Fourth Floor Layout Plans

Start with an Action Line

After a great subject line, the next most important thing to making emails serve us well is the quality of the very first line. It should be a short as possible and should focus on the required action. It will overlap with the subject line. That’s good; our busy brains need repetition of the important stuff.

Here are some examples:
I have attached the draft presentation for our pitch to ACME on Thursday. Please review and identify areas where we could better communicate our differentiators and benefits. No need to comment on style or layout, that comes later. [Notice that the verbs are review and identify, and the key nouns are differentiators and benefits.]
Below is the list of proposed ERP project committee members. Review and: a) approve members that you agree with; or b) disagree with members and provide rationale; and c) recommend an alternate member for any you would replace.
This is the background for our Friday meeting where we’ll make the go, no-go call on the Optima bid. Read the material and come prepared to vote “go,” “no-go,” or “go with conditions.” Send any conditions to Amy by Thursday COB so we can show them on screen.

Provide Additional Context and Content

Leave two or three lines blank before including any other content in your email. That will make the action line really pop. If you have different actions for different recipients, put those instructions in the content section. Make it succinct and clear and only include the material that supports the required action.

Edit for Brevity and Clarity

Take a quick pass over your message with the primary goal of making it more effective at getting the receiver to do what you need them to do. At the same time, fix typos, and read for tone. Be careful to avoid judgment words that might trigger a reaction that you’re not looking for.

Remove Most cc’s.

If the email serves the receiver, it automatically means you should NOT be adding people on the cc line if the message is of no use to them. Covering your ass is not a valid reason to copy someone on an email. If you think there’s something you need to be worried about, it justifies a separate email designed specifically for that person. You can separately forward your email with a different subject line and a different action line that asks for any help you need from that person.

Primer for Bid Decision: Surface any Resistance
Below, please find the message I just sent to the team. I’m concerned that resistance might be growing to the Optima Bid. Would you please alert me before the meeting if you hear of any concerns so that I can be prepared to address them.

One of the themes of the Change Has Changed speech is the importance of dealing with the overwhelming, frenetic pace of life in perpetual change by zooming in. Help everyone figure out what to pay attention to, and what not to pay attention to. Implementing these standards with your team will help you zoom in on the emails that matter.

Email checklist