What is an email?
First things first, an email is an electronic message sent between people using an electronic device.
Replying to an email requires the receiver to read the message headers and the message content.
Email message headers are information about a sent email that excludes the content. See the image below. This includes:
- The date and time the email was sent, including the seconds.
- The sender's email address.
- The receiver's email address.
- The subject title of the email.
The message headers can provide valuable information on the intent of the sender, which can influence your reply.
For example, if you receive an email from your boss at 03:00 AM, the odd time could suggest something is urgent.
How to reply to an email – Message content
Once you are aware of the message headers, you can read the content and classify the message before writing a reply. Most emails can be grouped into two categories:
- Information sharing – Messages sharing information that require no action e.g. Newsletter
- Asks – An email where someone is asking you to do something e.g. Boss asking for a report or a friend asking to meet up.
In the workplace, information-sharing emails can be critical to complete your job. A reply might be necessary to clarify matters relevant to you. In personal emails, information-sharing emails tend to be newsletters for education and entertainment and can be easily ignored.
How to decide if you should reply to an email?
Reply to an email if it is important for you to share information or maintain a relationship. Making that decision can only be done if you have clear goals at work, at home and in your everyday life. It’s very easy to get trapped in the hamster wheel of email responses due to the dopamine hit of checking emails and pressing “send”. Only reply to emails that advance your goals, accepting there will be a “limited” number of emails that are not the best use of your time.
Styles and Tones
Once you’ve decided to reply to an email it’s time to decide on the style and tone of the reply.
Formal emails follow the formatting of written letters before electronic communication. Example below.
Dear Recipient Name (e.g. Mr. John Ndege or John),
Informal formatting is converging towards SMS/text message style writing. Example below.
How long should your email be? Less than 150 words.
Over 40% of emails are opened on a mobile device. Due to the limited visual space, shorter emails are generally preferred by everyone. Email etiquette requires clarity and a limited number of “asks”, so the receiver can store the information in their brain as they write a reply. Emails longer than 150 words can be difficult to process.
Checking for clarity and errors
You can use grammar and spelling checks to weed out errors, but these tools rarely support clarity.
Before pressing send ask yourself “Am I getting my point across effectively in as few words as possible?” If not, edit. This usually involves reducing the number of words. The fewer the better. For advice on writing, I highly recommend the book “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.
This is how to reply to an email:
- Read the message headers, then decide if you want to move to step 2
- Read the content of the email and categorize it, before deciding if you want to move to step 3
- Decide if you want to reply now, then decide if you want to move to step 4
- Write a reply, then decide if want to move to step 5
- Check for clarity and errors, then decide if you want to move to step 6
- Press send!