During the COVID-19 pandemic, research administrators are finding creative ways to communicate with their faculty, staff, and institutions. Thankfully, the research administration community thrives online. One form of electronic communication we all rely on is email.
In the early 90s, the use of email communication forever changed the business world. The average U.S. employee spends about a quarter of the workweek combing through the hundreds of emails we all send and receive every day.
Email is a great form of communication if used properly. While we try to work faster and more efficiently, we must not forget some of the social rules that accompany any form of communication.
Here are just a few important points to remember when composing email, particularly when the email's recipient is a superior and/or someone who does not know you.
- Clear and concise subject line. Don’t take the subject line for granted! Make sure it is clear and concise. The subject line lets your recipients know what the message is about before they open it and helps them locate the email easily in the future.
- Keep your message short and sweet. Your message will have a better chance of being read in a timely manner (or at all!) if it’s to the point. When recipients are crunched for time, your long message will likely get put to the side until they have time to process it. A wordy message often sinks to the bottom of the pile. Good communicators express their thoughts in as few words as possible to avoid confusion and get their point across.
- Make it meaningful and to the point. Why are you sending this message? What action is required of the recipient, if any? If you are writing to someone you don’t know, explain briefly who you are and what you want. If you are emailing a colleague, make it clear if you need a response or an action, or are simply providing information. Provide action items or asks early in the message. Use bullet points or numbering to organize longer messages and give deadlines whenever possible.
- Watch your tone. Keep in mind that sarcasm doesn’t translate well from the spoken to the written word. Emails can also be forwarded, so if you think your email may go on to another recipient, consider whether they will take your comments in the same light as the original recipient. You don’t want to offend someone even if that wasn’t your intention. Also, avoid using all caps in your email communications: it implies shouting! It’s also more difficult to read, so be kind and give your readers eyes a break.
- Unnecessary attachments. If you come upon a message that contains an attachment and you need to send a reply, carefully consider your options. If you’re not altering the attachment in any way, why include the attachment in the reply? It takes extra steps and time for a recipient to open and read an attachment. If your recipients need to make changes to a file, then it may not make sense to attach a file. Use of a data repository that contains a single instance of the file and makes updates to reflect edits from multiple sources would be a better way to go. If you can avoid attaching the file to the email, your administrators will thank you for not using unnecessary space with multiple copies of the same file.
- No exclusions or should there be? If a message was sent to multiple people and you need to add to the discussion for everyone’s benefit, don’t be afraid to use Reply to All. If you omit recipients on follow-up correspondence, you may create bad feelings by dropping people from the conversation. On the flip side, if a message was sent to multiple people and you only need to respond to the sender, simply Reply. Don’t inundate everyone with information they don’t care about by using Reply to All.
- Use your common sense! If an email gets the better of you and stirs up passionate feelings (good or bad), take some deep breaths and proceed with caution. Impulsive replies can be dangerous, and words can be misconstrued! Another good rule of thumb for email: if you are hesitant to deliver your message in person, it is not appropriate to email. Remember, you can’t “undo” once your email has been sent and opened. The great thing about electronic communication is that it does give you the ability to think about your words before you use them. Take advantage of this and proceed with caution.
These are a few simple steps to help you be a more effective communicator. Having effective communication skills will make you more productive and get the attention of those you are communicating with.
Authored by Cynthia Morin, Senior Administrative Manager, Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium
Johns Hopkins University
SRAI Northeast Section Past President
Cynthia Morin is one of the candidates for one of the two At-Large Board Members for the Board of Directors.
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