My 10 Rules for Business Email

by cmsutton23

Email has become such a central part of our business communication, but it is a completely disrespected and often misused art.  As such, many of my personal communication rules revolve around email.  However, underlying all of these rules are the bigger themes of taking a service and action-oriented approach to communication…with just a smidgen of common sense.

1.  Anticipate misunderstandings/miscommunication and immediately take action to bring clarity to the situation.  At the first sniff of this, get on it!

1a. It doesn’t matter if you are just one in a cast of thousands participating in the conversation.  If you’re involved, then consider it your responsibility to anticipate and help solve the problem.

1b. Unless time zones make it impossible, either call or – better yet – get your rear up and talk to the relevant parties.  You will learn 1000x more by actually talking to someone than by firing off yet another email.

2.  If you aren’t sending an email for the following reasons, then rethink your strategy:

  • Multiple people need to communicate with each other and be kept in the loop
  • Time zones will not easily allow for phone calls or face-to-face communication
  • As follow up to a phone call to confirm/document understanding of all points or action items

3.  Unless absolutely necessary due to large time zone differences or some other extreme restriction, DO NOT use email to broach a topic that you know is going to be volatile/sensitive or spark far more questions than you can anticipate and already answer in an email.  You need to actually talk to the person.

4.  Respond to emails within 24 hours.  You may not have the answer yet, but at least acknowledge the email and buy yourself some time if you need it.  (This is especially critical when you are working internationally.)

5.  Think REALLY hard about who is reading your email and how your words will be received.  This means:

  • Anticipate the most obvious questions that could arise and acknowledge/answer them.  A preemptive strike will save a lot of back and forth later.
  • If people are on copy that aren’t familiar with the situation, either give a brief background in the main email, or immediately follow the main email up with a note to them sharing this information.
  • Be obsessive about the tone.  Word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and overall structure of the email (e.g. using the good-bad-good formula) all contribute to the tone.  IMPORTANT – Just because you have a good working relationship with someone doesn’t mean that you can start disregarding the tone.  Sure, sometimes one-liner emails back and forth are ok, but there’s also a very fine line between that efficient familiarity and coming across as rude.

6.  When having to communicate even slightly unpleasant information, using the good-bad-good formula is the way to go.  This method can apply to both written and verbal communication, but it’s especially helpful with email.  Remember – there are real people on the other end of the “send” button and you will get a lot further if you allow them to save face.

7.  Another one for email that should probably go without saying – proper grammar, bullets, paragraphs, lists, and font formatting are essential for making your message easy to follow and understand.  It’s just good business writing.  If you are using a paragraph to list multiple items that need someone’s response, it’s almost guaranteed that one of those items will get missed; go with bullets or a numbered list instead.

8.  Keep the email as short as possible while still communicating all of the appropriate information.  No one wants to read an email with multiple, lengthy paragraphs (or worse – one extremely long paragraph).  Think to yourself, “Would I want to be on the receiving end of this novel?”  If you’ve already applied rule #7 and pared the irrelevant information but you still have a gargantuan email, then think about whether an email is really the appropriate vehicle for this message.  It might be more effective to set up a meeting.

9.  Don’t be afraid to draft an email – especially one with a more complex message – and let it sit for a few hours (provided that you aren’t going to completely derail a project by doing so).  Looking at it later with a fresh perspective will help you make great final edits.

10.  Cliché, but true: a picture is worth a thousand wordsGo with the picture.  If you are trying to question or describe something from a document, piece of artwork, web page, etc. and notice that you are using a lot of words to describe exactly where and what you’re talking about, use a screen shot instead.  Make sure you mark the area in question with a circle, arrow, or some other relevant indicator.


As with most rules, there are always exceptions.  However, I’ve found that the regular application of these principles has been a huge difference maker in reducing misunderstandings, saving time, and having my emails received in a positive manner.  Giving extra thought to communication shows that you care and, perhaps more importantly, it makes it easier for people on the receiving end to provide what you need.  It’s a win for everyone.