Dr John Lockley explores the pitfalls of poor email technique and offers simple steps to improve efficiency and reduce stress

What takes up a large proportion of the working day (especially for managers) and yet is essentially unregulated, unpoliced, and has no commonly agreed standards?

That’s right, email. While it’s great for speedy communication, it can also clutter up our lives enormously. We can easily spend 5–10% of our working day dealing with emails: some managers spend much longer—perhaps half their time or more.

Reducing the impact of this burden would save us more than just time: by using email more effectively we could make our work, and the work of others, vastly more efficient and far less stressful. Just think, if you spend 40% of your time on emails and you can manage to halve this, then you’ve freed up a fifth of your working day!

But there’s a problem: the cure is altruistic. When using email properly the person who benefits isn’t you but those with whom you are communicating. Yet if we all resolved to work to some simple, agreed standards, everyone would benefit—massively.

A cautionary tale

In 2016 an event occurred that brought down the entire NHS email system for 2 to 3 days: it took the rest of the week to repair the damage and possibly affected patient care. It all began so simply: someone sent a test email. Unfortunately, they’d unintentionally copied in everyone on the main NHSmail address book—more than 800,000 of them. So that meant over 800,000 emails were suddenly sent out at the same time.

Many of these unintended recipients wrote back to say, ‘Why have you sent me this email?’ but unfortunately a small number of them (a mere 120 or so) did it using ‘reply to all’. This meant that at least 120 million new emails immediately hit NHSmail … which promptly ground to a halt.

It also meant that each user of NHSmail also received 120 copies of the original email, plus all the responders’ comments. This filled up everyone’s inboxes and—somewhat as you might expect—quite a few people then started sending ‘reply to all’ responses with ‘WILL YOU PLEASE STOP SENDING ME THESE EMAILS’ as the body text—which multiplied the problem beyond all reason.

Within 2 hours, NHSmail had to handle 3 months’ worth of email traffic. Not unexpectedly it collapsed under the strain.

Then everyone—all NHSmail users throughout the entire NHS—had to delete the hundreds of emails that had ended up in their inboxes. But unfortunately, as NHSmail needed to be working smoothly before each unwanted email could be selected and deleted, each user had to wait ages before they could remove even one email, and every one of them had hundreds to deal with.

Meanwhile, because the entire NHSmail system had been clogged up, important clinical instructions and communications either couldn’t be sent, or (worse) were stuck in the system, with the sender thinking the instructions had been sent, but the receiver not aware of (or unable to access) them. That’s when a simple mistake turned into something that paralysed communications within the entire NHS—which now meant that patients could be at risk.

That’s how emailing can go really wrong, creating a problem with the size and disruptiveness of a hurricane. Nevertheless, every day thousands of email users create their own little storms of inefficiency. So how can we control this?

How to use email well

Although much office time is wasted on inefficient emails, there’s no widely recognised handbook on good practice. So I compiled one for our CCG, with a little help from my friends. It’s called e-tiquette—I hope you like the pun! It’s short, it’s free, it’s easy to read—and should give you a good giggle, particularly at the beginning where it describes how easy it is to use poor email techniques to tie other people up in knots. See the key points at the end of the article for a list of some of its positive ideas. Download the e-tiquette booklet from Guidelines in Practice.

The right write

No one ever seems to think about the literary quality of emails. (You what…?) But writing technique is incredibly important in creating good communication—which, after all, is what emails are about.

Clear writing is all about using words properly. Good communication is about being precise, concise, logical, and non-ambiguous.

Being concise

‘Concise’ is easy. Try not to write War and peace. Less is more—like this paragraph.

Try to get your message across in five lines or less—it’s more likely to be read immediately, rather than being put on one side for later (or indeed, never!).

Being precise

Being precise is harder and takes more time. It’s so easy to confuse people—just put down the first words that come into your head, even if they don’t exactly describe what you mean. Surely the recipients will get the message? Well actually, no—they’ll just get confused.

Sometimes people put on airs and graces when writing, using long words and flowery language in the hope that it will make them look knowledgeable and authoritative. It doesn’t—it makes them look the opposite, especially when they use words whose meaning they think they know, but have actually got wrong. How many times do you use words and sentences that don’t quite convey what you intend them to mean? I have a friend like this: often after I’ve read his emails, I still don’t have the faintest idea what he’s trying to say—something of a problem if the email contains instructions!

So here are some easy rules:

  1. If you’re using a word, make sure you know exactly what it means. ‘He was lying prostate on the ground.’ (Probably not, but it might have been easier to say, ‘He was lying face-down.’)
  2. Think about your use of longer or more unusual words. If you don’t know what they mean, will your audience? Wouldn’t it have been better to use simpler terms which are universally understood?
  3. Are your sentences far too long, unwieldy, and difficult to understand because you’re always trying to make several points at the same time? Split them up. Make your sentences short and snappy: as a rough rule of thumb, each sentence should contain only one general idea.

Logic and non-ambiguity

  • Check your punctuation. ‘King Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.’ Really? Try ‘King Charles I walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.’ Punctuation matters.
  • Check for obvious incompleteness. You’re organising a meeting: you may know where you want it to happen, but have you really told people everything they need to know? What room is it in? When are the papers being sent out? Is food provided? Where’s the parking?
  • Check for ambiguity. ‘The doctor said to the patient that he should wash his hands with unperfumed soap.’ Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? But hang on, who was washing whose hands—the patient or the doctor? Or was the patient washing the doctor’s hands? (Creepy. You hadn’t thought of that one, had you…? But the text as written could actually mean that.) In other words, make sure it’s impossible for the reader to interpret incorrectly what you’ve written.

Concise and precise, logical, and unambiguous: that’s how to communicate well using email… plus of course using all the advice in e-tiquette. Why not share it with your colleagues and get everyone to put it into practice? Potentially there are huge gains for everyone: but remember, it’s altruistic—you can’t help yourself, only others. But by the same token, they can help you. We’ve all got to do this together.

And now for the final problem. What are you and your colleagues going to do with all the extra time you gain once you start putting these principles into practice?

Key points

  • Effective use of email frees up time, increases efficiency, and reduces stress for everyone
  • Don’t click on ‘Reply to all’ unless everyone needs to see your reply
  • When replying to an email, delete as much as you can of the email trail below it (the ‘cruft’), unless its contents really need to be seen by the recipient
  • Make sure your emails are concise, precise, logical, and unambiguous:
    • make the header a concise, relevant description of what your email contains
    • change the header if necessary, to reflect what your message actually says, not what the previous ones did
    • use the minimum number of words
    • when an email needs to be long, use bullets and numbers to identify the points. It’s easier to read and quicker to digest
    • where possible, use links rather than attachments. If you do have to attach a document, give the version number of the document in the email header (= subject line). Now check what you’ve written—for readability, sense, completeness and non-ambiguity
    • minimise your footer.