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.

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.

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.

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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.

Someone who emails like this is trying to show you how busy and important they are. And that’s not very polite.

Another problem with this is the lack of useful information. The email is short, but it’s not necessarily easy to deal with. What are you supposed to do with that?

As a recipient, are you expected to respond, to take some sort of action? It’s really not clear.

When you email, to reduce the burden of email, you should be putting all the relevant information and make sure it’s included the first time. Double emailing is a big faux pas.

As well as a lack of practical information, the problem with the super succinct email is the lack of emotional information. This is a major problem with email as with many forms of digital communication.

Because it’s conducted by text, it’s very difficult to convey sentiment. You don’t have any of the nonverbal cues that we use when we’re speaking to each other in real life to communicate your intent, like facial expressions, tone of voice or body language. And that makes it easy for email to be misconstrued.

Is that “Okay,” happy, sad, begrudging, angry? It can be hard to tell.

So when you write an email, read it back and check that it can’t be misinterpreted, and make use of all of the language tools that we do have to try to communicate our emotional intent. Even a simple punctuation mark can make a big difference.

Take a look at these. Which of these would you most like to receive and which would you least like to receive?

I’d most like to receive the second one. That’s a very enthusiastic thanks. I’d least like to receive the third one. There’s something so final seeming about that full stop, isn’t there?

And by the way, this is why I’m very pro-emoji in email, provided it’s not a very formal context.

Emoji are great at communicating sentiment; they’re basically a digital stand-in for facial expression, after all, and all the tools that we do have to make sure that we’re not misunderstood, we should be making use of.

Next, let’s get on to one part that so many people get wrong: The Sign-Off. I’ll keep this one simple.

There is a correct way to sign off an email. It is “Best wishes.” “Best” and “All the best” are also acceptable. Anything else? Sorry, no.

“Yours sincerely”? Too formal.

“Yours”? Too intimate.

“Cheers”? Okay for friends, but too casual for a professional context.

“BW”? Tacky.

“Kind regards”? Just a bit pompous.

Those are all terrible, but my absolute least favorite email sign-off is “Thanks in advance.”

What’s wrong with “Thanks in advance”? It’s incredibly presumptive – you can’t thank someone for doing something before they’ve agreed to do it. That’s not how gratitude works.

When you say “Thanks in advance” in an email, you’re basically saying, “Hey, by the way, you have no choice whether to do this or not.”

So stick to “Best” or “Best wishes,” and you can’t go wrong. And you do need to write it out every time.

Relying on your automated signature to do it for you is the height of laziness. Plus, it won’t show up in some email clients.

While we’re on email signatures, actually, if you do decide to use one, keep it classy – no colorful word art, no JPEG logos that are going to confuse everyone’s antivirus, and no deep and meaningful quotes.

Just your name and, if necessary, your contact details.

So we’ve got our email, a few finishing touches: the subject line. Keep it simple.

It should do what it says on the tin, or in this case, in the email. Summarize your email in a few key words. Don’t write a full sentence because it will get chopped off.

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Don’t try to be funny and do not overplay the urgent card.

“CC.” There may come a time when you want to send an email to multiple people at once, at which point you may wish to make use of the “CC” feature.

Now, if you take one thing away from this talk, let it be the “CC” rule.

I didn’t come up with the “CC” rule. In fact, it’s so important it’s even included in the go-to etiquette bible, Debrett’s. The “CC” rule states that primary recipients of an email, who are expected to respond, should go in the “To” field. Other recipients of an email, who are not expected to respond and who are included as a courtesy or for their information, should go in the “CC” field.

Next time you receive an email that’s been addressed to multiple people, take a look: Are you a primary recipient, or are you on “CC”? Do you need to respond?

What I love about the “CC” rule is it makes the expectations on your recipients so clear. If you’re in the “To” field, you should respond; if you’re on the “CC” field, you should not respond.

And it also reduces the burden of email by hopefully cutting back on the number of emails sent. Those people on “CC” don’t have that awkward moment where they’re wondering, “Am I expected to pitch in here?” The “CC” rule will change your email life.

What about your other option, “BCC”?

Now, “BCC” can be a bit sneaky, so there’s only a few specific cases where you should use it. One is to protect your recipient’s identity if you’re emailing sensitive information to multiple people, for example.

Another is to avoid a reply-all-pocalypse. We’ve all been there: someone sends an email to too many people, people all start hitting “Reply All” – chaos.

Good use of “BCC.” And for extra credit, an absolutely top email etiquette move is to move someone to “BCC” if their input is no longer required on an ongoing thread.

How this works is if the thread’s getting a bit out of control and you know someone is not needed to respond, you send one last message moving them to BCC. They’re blissfully removed from any future chaos.

And you are an email etiquette superhero – you’ve just selflessly saved their inbox from unnecessary emails. We’re just about ready to send our email. Or are we?

I’ve saved probably the most important thing till last because when you send an email should be as much a consideration as what you put in it.

First things first, if it’s a work email, stick to work hours – no 2 a.m. emailing in your pajamas. One of the major causes of email stress is that we can’t get away from it. It demands so much from us, especially now that we’re all walking around with mini computers in our pocket. We can check email anywhere and anytime.

But instead of feeling free, we feel trapped. We’re expected to be always contactable. We can never leave. The only way to buck this trend is to start setting boundaries.

Unless you’re a heart surgeon, you really probably don’t need to be on call all the time. In fact, it’s probably better if you’re not – I’ve checked my work email in some incredibly inappropriate places. So just stick to work hours.

Now, you could say that it’s on the recipient to decide when they check their email. You can send an email at 2 a.m. but they don’t have to answer until the following day.

The problem is that’s a lot easier said than done. When you’ve got an unread email notification burning a hole in your pocket, it’s very tempting to check it. Therefore it’s on the sender to set a reasonable norm and exhibit good email etiquette in doing so.

So that’s our email completed. I hope you’ll join me in spreading good email etiquette and making our digital lives a little bit easier and friendlier.

So all that’s left for me to do then is to sign off.

Thank you!

 

Resources for Further Reading:

This is What Happens When You Reply to Spam Email by James Veitch (Transcript)

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Elspeth Penny at TEDxSWPS (Transcript)

Hannah Gadsby: Three Ideas. Three Contradictions. Or Not. (Transcript)

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