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What are the chances your email was understood?

Well if you put faith in a recent study, it’s highly unlikely.  This study found that when you communicate with someone only 7% of their comprehension is based upon the actual words you are communicating, 38% is based upon your tone, pace and volume of speech, and an incredible 55% is based upon nonverbal clues such as body language (Bauer & Erdogan, 2010).  What’s one to do then?  As the sender of an email consider the following when creating your message:

  1. Always include a subject in your email – and make sure it’s concise.  Subjects such as “Notes” or “Meeting” are too generic and provide no guidance to the reader as to what your email is about.  The email subject sets the tone for the email and is considered a headline which can draw the receiver’s attention in their overloaded inbox.
  2. Avoid using sarcasm and irony – which can be subtle and easily misunderstood especially without the ability for the receiver to observe your tone and body language.  There is great risk if your attempts at sarcasm or irony are missed by the receiver.
  3. Reread and spell check your email before sending – before asking the receiver of your email to take the time to read it, make sure you’ve also taken enough time to reread and spell check your email.
  4. Never send with a receipt requests – this will upset the receiver of your email as they will feel you have no faith in them to read their email in a timely manner, if at all.
  5. Keep messages short and concise – if you’ve written a three page email it’s likely your receiver, who may only have a few minutes to catch up on their inbox, will open it and upon seeing the length will immediately close it so they can move on to the next email.  Short, concise emails are more likely to be responded to in a timely manner.
  6. Verify attachments before sending – many of us forget to attach documents and then have to bother our recipient with a second email containing the attachment. Perhaps try attaching any files being sent with your email before you start on the body of your email.
  7. Keep requests for the receiver to one or two per email – if requesting actions from your receiver, do not put more than two requests in the same email.  Too many requests can overburden your receiver which may lead to your email going unanswered for quite a while as they may try to address all of your requests before responding.
  8. Use <EOM> (End of Message) when appropriate – appending “<EOM>” to the subject of your email tells the user they do not need to take the time to open the message as everything is conveyed in the subject.  For example: “Our 2:30 meeting has moved to the conference room A <EOM>”.

For email to remain an effective form of communication, the receiver of the email also has a few responsibilities:

  1. Manage your inbox daily – regardless of how busy your day is, always find time in the morning and end of the day to review your inbox.
  2. Always respond to an email – many of us find ourselves unable to immediately provide the information requested in an email we have received.  However, that should never stop you from sending a response so that the sender does not feel ignored or left wondering if their email was received.  Sample responses should set an expectation as to when you will fully respond to the message.  For example:
    Thank you for your email Elaine.  I expect to be able to respond to your email by end of day tomorrow.
    Best wishes,
  3. Question and clarify – unlike an in-person discussion or phone call, email is generally viewed as an asynchronous communication as there is not that immediate back and forth volley of questions/responses.  However, never be hesitant to reply with requests for further clarification on anything in the email you have received.
  4. Always confirm your recipient list – someone once described the “Reply All” button as the worst technological development of all time.  Mishaps with “Reply All” have happened so often that Bridgestone spent over a million dollars on their Superbowl commercial based upon a Reply All nightmare (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaO8WltLmEk).  So before pressing the “Send” button, always take an extra second to confirm your recipient list.

Although all these tips can help improve your email communications, they cannot replace the need for the recipient of your message to hear your tone or see your body language.  For this reason, if you are the creator of the message, consider what is the best way to communicate this message.  If your message is sensitive or difficult, perhaps picking up the phone or walking down the hall is a better approach than banging out some text on your keyboard and delivering via email.


Bauer, T. & Erdogan, B. (2010). Organizational behavior. Irvington NY: Flat World Knowledge, Inc.


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