If you work at a church, or just about anywhere, you probably send and receive a lot of email. You’ve no doubt received some poorly written emails and likely have even sent a few yourself. Recently, I gave our church staff some suggestions for writing better email:
1. Send it “To” the correct people, that is who needs to receive the information and do something with it. We recommend filling in who you are sending the email to last, as it saves you from inadvertently sending the email before you are done.
2. “CC” the correct people. Feel free to CC anyone who might need to know the information in your email as an FYI, but is not expected to respond. In general, we encourage you to be liberal in CCing people, as we want people in the know, but please do not go overboard.
3. Reconsider before using “BCC.” Ask yourself why you are really using BCC. And ask yourself how the recipient will feel when they find out you blind copied someone else, and how you are going to feel, when you find out, that they found out. It’s probably better to simply use CC.
4. Unless absolutely necessary don’t respond to an email you were CCed on. You were CCed for your information, not your input.
5. Think twice before hitting “Reply All.” There are over 20 people on staff, even if it takes the average person 5 seconds to read and delete your reply, you just wasted a minute or two of the church’s time (20 people x 5 seconds = 100 seconds). That’s one to two minutes, on the low end, every single time someone does this. Whatever you do, don’t reply all with an email that simply says “Great!”.
6. Use a strong, clear, informative subject line. Your subject line should not be long, but it should be clear. Some bad subject lines I have seen recently include a blank subject line, “Hey!”, “Today” and one where the entire three sentence email was in the subject line. People decide whether they are going to open emails based on subject lines, so if you want them to read your email, chose well.
7. Only tackle one subject in each email. Your email may be a summary of multiple things under one heading (such as Sunday Follow-Up or Funeral Info for John Doe) but don’t put two unrelated subjects in one email. It gets too confusing when people start replying to different parts of the email and it also causes people to miss things.
8. Be concise. Very few people respond to a massive block of text. If you’ve ever received an email back saying “let’s just talk about this in person” that is code for you just wrote too much to read, process and respond to in an email. If it requires more than a paragraph or two, then it is probably better to handle in person. Also, don’t bury the lead. Get right to the point of your email.
9. Ask for the response you want. A great way to end an email is to simply state “Can you have this to me by 5pm on Thursday?” or even, “No need to reply, but I just wanted you to be aware of the issue.” Tell the person what you want them to do with the information you have just presented. If you are not specific in what you are asking for, don’t be upset when you don’t get the reply you want.
10. Remember your tone – Email is horrible at communicating tone. You have to be over the top to get tone to come across in email. Avoid negative words like failure and wrong. Be sure to use please and thank you. Be especially careful with humor, as it often doesn’t translate. Use exclamation points sparingly!!! Never argue via email. Don’t use ALL CAPS unless you really are trying to yell something.
11. If you are upset, wait a day. We rarely say the right things, in the right way, when we are mad. Actually, this one really should be “if you are upset, wait a day, and then go talk to the person face-to-face.” It’s easy to go pop off an email in anger, it’s hard to deal with the relational consequences your short-tempered email will produce.
12. Do not copy other people in on someone else’s email when you reply without getting the original senders permission first. Likewise, don’t forward someone’s email without their permission. Just so you know, I view this a breaking confidentiality which is the “unpardonable sin” on staff. When I send something to you I am choosing the content and wording that I would say to you, not necessarily someone else. Also, don’t hit reply all and then communicate a private/confidential reply.
13. Read every email. Email is the primary way we communicate throughout the week, so it is important and it is part of the daily responsibilities of your job. Neglecting email is not an option.
14. Reply to every email where your response is requested or needed. Our staff policy is to reply to every email that a response is needed for within 24 hours, unless you have a day off or vacation. It is far better to reply and say, “I don’t have an answer to that, but I will ask at staff meeting next week and get back to you” than to leave them waiting a week. If you know you are not going to get back to email within 24 hours then you should use your out of office assistant.
15. Proofread every email. I once heard the rule of thumb that you should proofread an email one time for every one person you are sending it to. That is a little overboard for an inter-staff email, but if it is going out to a group in the church it may not be far off. If it is an email going to a large group, have two or three other people proofread before sending it. We do things with excellence. Sloppy emails are not us.
16. Use your church email address for church matters, and use your personal email address for personal matters. Again, we do things with excellence and professionalism. Your old AOL email address is actually vintage cool, but it doesn’t work for sending church emails from. Alf may have been your favorite TV show growing up, but firstname.lastname@example.org is not going work for sending church emails.
17. Be careful with abbreviations and emoticons. Again, be mindful of professionalism. This is especially true in mass emails and in your first email exchanges with people. They may not appreciate all your emoticons as much as you do. They may not even understand your abbreviations. How many people actually know what QUE stands for? Or NNTR?
18. Don’t use read receipts. First, they are annoying. Second, they do not usually work, as people decline them or block the feature altogether. Third, they communicate a lack of trust.
19. Remember nothing is confidential. On staff, forwarding an email without permission is a breach of confidentiality. Remember though, when you email someone outside of this staff, there isn’t much that keeps them from forwarding it to everyone they know with a couple of keystrokes. Assume that others, including those you may not want to, will see everything you write. Along these lines, as a general rule, do not use email to discuss confidential information.