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Using email for good instead of evil

Thursday, September 6, 2018   (0 Comments)
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I am that person. You know the one. I read my messages – work and personal – before I go to bed, when I wake up and in those dark hours when I should be sleeping and replenishing my energy for the next go-round. I’m always reading and sending emails, text messages, blogging, posting and, yes, tweeting. A newspaper writer for the first half of my life, I am in heaven today with the immediacy and many avenues of communication.


No editors, no deadlines, no boundaries. I could send you an email at 2 a.m. when I have my best ideas and respond to your email within minutes of your 5 a.m. request that kept you awake. I am that person.


That said, I still play by the rules and sometimes the strictest of those rules are my own. I am a lifelong writer and communicator with my own high standards and personal punctuation philosophy based on spoon-feeding the reader to understand, read and hear the message I am sending,


The goal with email communication is to do just that: Communicate. If you didn't read my email, if you didn't understand my goal, if you misinterpreted my intent, if you didn't act on my request, then, as the sender, I failed. If you didn't recognize me as a serious professional with a positive mission, I failed. If you read through and still didn't respond, I failed. It is not the reader's mistake -- ever; it is the writer's.


Write, read, rewrite, shorten again and again and even read out loud. Then send.


We have these wonderful, immediate tools at our fingertips and thumb taps and we must use them wisely-- for good instead of evil.


My best advice is to treat your email like the notes you passed to friends in middle school. (I bet no one does this anymore, but you get the picture.) Keep the message succinct, fun, positive and careful -- you never know when the teacher, boss or unknown global audience will swoop down and read your words aloud to an audience not of your choosing.


Email lives forever; they have no nuance; they represent you in your most stripped down and available form. Even when you think you are being careful, someone forwards your email to a larger or different audience and there you are, re-reading what you just wrote and cringing.


Some basic rules:

The subject line is the most important part of an email. Be clever, interesting and brief. If you need immediate action, say so immediately.


Before you write, determine your goal. Write to your goal. Do you want action? What action are you seeking? That's the first statement you write. Use active and specific verbs. Please review, donate, call. If you're imparting knowledge, be clear and specific. Tighten the details. Make the email look short and inviting not long and exhausting.


Please no "once upon a time" intros to your message. The history, if you have to include it, can start after the meat of your message. Goldilocks was caught by the bears; the wolf ate grandma; the brick house stood up to the attack. “Bottom-line me,” as Bruce Willis used to say on “Moonlighting.” (How old is that reference?) Your reader needs to know as quickly as possible your message. That's communication. 


If you read an email as terse, inappropriate or demanding, don't respond until you clarify. Remember, in this case, you're the reader. The writer is responsible for your reaction. If it's your boss or immediate action is requested, pick up the phone. Have a live conversation before you reply.


I treat emails like letters, with a salutation and closing. These thoughtful honorifics make your message kinder and warmer. You are less likely to be misread or considered inappropriate if you make these simple, inviting gestures.


Have a professional signature line based on your company's style or protocol. Name, title, phone number, simple logo or mission statement. Be uniform when representing your nonprofit or business. Be cute in your personal email if you must.


My goal is always to reply to email as quickly as possible, even if it's to say “OK,” “thanks,” “will do,” “got it” or “I will get you that answer shortly.” Don't play games and not reply or delay a reply. It's petty and unprofessional and, in the end, is not the message you want to send in your professional life. My co-workers know they can depend on me. Likewise, I know, if someone doesn't reply, that they are playing games. Your email likely has been read; your recipient is choosing to respond at his/her own convenience. Is that the signal you want to send? Not me. Everyone's time is of equal value. Be known for your dependability instead of your cavalier attitude. No one is too busy to be polite. Respond. Answer fully when you have a complete answer. You don’t have to stop and change your day.


Some other email etiquette tips are below:


  1. Address your contact with the appropriate level of formality.
  2. Make sure you spell his or her name or names correctly.
  3. Spell check -- emails with typos are not taken seriously and are unprofessional.
  4. If you are looking for help, use the word “help.” It is powerful in getting attention.
  5. Bullet points or enumerated steps are helpful to emphasize information. Limit to three to five bullet points or steps.
  6. Use complete sentences. Sentence fragments can be confusing.
  7. Use proper sentence structure. First word is capitalized and appropriate punctuation used.
  8. Exclamation points are not appropriate in a business email.
  9. Always make a routine final check of the address or addresses in the “To:” field.
  10. If the person does not know you, be sure and make a link to someone s/he does in the first sentence.
  11. Be specific about what you do and how it refers to the information or action you are seeking.
    • I am a writer working on a proposal for teen health clinic.
    • I am an associate fundraiser writing to thank you for your recent gift.
  12. Do not type in all caps. It reflects shouting or high emphasis.
  13. Do not use patterned backgrounds. They make your emails harder to read and are not appropriate for business emails.
  14. Stay away from fancy fonts. Use something clean and readable.
  15. Don’t use multiple font colors. It makes your email harder to view and can cause your intent to be being misinterpreted.
  16. Include addresses in the “To” field if you want a response from that person.
  17. Include addresses in the “Cc” field for those you are just informing.
  18. If your name is in the Cc line, try not to respond. Consider creating an email rule that sends “Cc” email to a separate folder.
  19. Never expose a contact’s email to strangers by listing them all in the “To” field.
  20. Make sure when using Bcc: that your intentions are proper. Best advice: Don’t.
  21.  When forwarding, remember, you can change the subject line to your own message. A forwarded email is still an email from you.
  22.  If the email trail is important, be sure to sum up the action needed from the current recipient at the top. No one wants to wade through weeks of emails to get to the point.
  23. Most importantly, pick up the phone if your email is too complicated or long. When you finish chatting, let the email be the follow-up so that next steps are clear to everyone.



About The Author




Denise Bray Hensley

Senior Director of Constituent Strategies

Office of Institutional Advancement and Alumni Affairs


During her journalism career, Denise covered crime, politics, presidents, hurricanes and wrote a Sunday column for the Houston Chronicle. She taught news writing and editing at University of Houston and GED to first-time felons in Harris County. When the news business changed, she re-settled in non-profits at Baylor College of Medicine where she now leads the writing team. She has written many successful high-dollar proposals, including one for $100 million. She also does web work, social media consulting, ghost writing, speech writing and line editing. Her personal blog is

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