How to Write an Email (No, Really): Victoria Turk at TEDxAthens (Transcript)

In this TEDx Talk, from subject line to sign-off, Victoria Turk guides through some of the oft-neglected fundamentals of email etiquette.

Victoria Turk is a senior editor at WIRED UK, where she edits the magazine’s culture section, leads video strategy, and writes regularly for print and web.

 

Victoria Turk – TEDxAthens TRANSCRIPT

I’m going to teach you how to write an email.

No, seriously. You probably think that you’re an expert emailer. You‘ve been writing emails for years, decades. You spend most of your workday composing, sending, receiving and replying to emails. You live in your inbox.

But I’m here to tell you you’re probably doing it wrong.

Don’t worry because in the next 15 or so minutes, I’m going to guide you through a whistle-stop tour of the latest in email etiquette.

First, let’s rewind a little bit.

WHY DO I CARE SO MUCH ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS IN YOUR INBOX?

For many of us, email has become the default way that we communicate with each other at work. And for good reason: It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s convenient.

But here’s the thing. Although email is ostensibly the easiest way to communicate in a work context, it’s also intensely stressful.

It may well be the fastest way to get things done, and yet it just feels as if it takes up so much time.

You rarely hear of anyone complaining that they have too few unread emails.

As a result, my email-etiquette philosophy is guided by one fundamental principle: reducing the burden of email as much as possible.

At its simplest, this can mean cutting down on the number of emails you send and sending them to fewer people – “Reply All” at your peril.

And when you do send an email, you should make it as quick and easy as possible for your recipient to deal with.

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So with that golden rule in mind, let’s write an email together, starting with “The Greeting.”

Hi and a first name is probably fine. It’s 2019. We’re all friends here. Email behavior has evolved. Once upon a time, it may have been customary to treat email like a digital version of a snail-mail letter and to address your recipient with “Dear.”

But nowadays, most emails, especially in a work context, are more like post-it notes than a lengthy missive. In fact, email started out that way.

The very first messages, sent from computer to computer on the ARPANET network in the 1970s, before the Internet as we know it today, were more practical updates from colleague to colleague than perfectly worded letters. So save “Dear” and using someone’s title for more formal situations, such as an official briefing or an invitation.

You also don’t need to keep saying hi every time you email someone on an ongoing thread, particularly if it’s very active. If you’re having a back and forth conversation, treat it as such. You don’t need to keep interrupting with hi, hi, hi, hi –

My rule of thumb is to follow the sun: if your conversation spans several days, then say hi again after each new sunrise. So that was the easy bit.

Let’s get down to business and into “The Body” of our email.

Now obviously, you could be emailing about all sorts of different topics, and trying to communicate all sorts of different sentiment. So there’s a lot of leeway here, but there are still some rules.

First, let’s revisit our number one goal: reducing the burden of email, reducing the stress of email. That means “Keep it to the point” – concise and precise is your mantra.

When it comes to email, good etiquette is not about the fancy flourishes, it’s about respecting other people’s time.

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When I was researching my recent book on digital etiquette, one of the people I spoke to was an American writer and podcaster Merlin Mann. He’s the person who coined the term Inbox Zero. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically a method for staying on top of your unread emails.

I won’t get into it here, but if you have an overfull inbox, it will change your life.

Anyway, when I asked him what he thought constituted good email etiquette, he said, “Assume that everyone you’re communicating with is smarter than you and cares more than you and is busier than you.” I think that’s excellent advice.

So no waffling. No jargon. No small talk. You do not have to ask after your recipient’s health every time you email them. That said, it is possible to be too concise. There’s a line where brevity crosses over into rudeness.

Have you ever received an email like this, perhaps from your boss or a superior at work? [OK.]

Or maybe one like this? [Received.]

Or like this? [Agree.]

The classic one-word email.

And if you think that’s bad, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is apparently known for forwarding messages from customers to his employees with not just one word, but one character: [?] the question mark.

Can you imagine receiving that email?

In these cases, brevity has almost certainly crossed the line into rudeness. No one is too busy to say please and thank you. Instead, these emails seem more like a power play.

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