Business Columns & Blogs

It’s not all that difficult to avoid the terrible email underworld

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

You’ve just spent several hours composing a detailed, information-filled email for your boss. You send it and expect a quick and positive response. You wait an hour, a day, two days. Finally, you get a message with this subject line: TLDNR.


You walk to your boss’s office and ask what’s up.

Her response: “Too long. Did not read.”

All of that work, wasted. You’ve gone to the email underworld. But fear not, there is hope.

Think of the worst emails you receive. What do they have in common?

▪  Email title doesn’t match the content.

▪  It’s been forwarded from someone else and you don’t really need to see it.

▪  A “reply all” response overloads you with irrelevant emails.

▪  It rambles and leads to a “TLDNR” response.

So what can you do?

1. Decide if you really need to send it. So many emails are reactive or scattered. Do you need to spend energy writing this one? How will it help the reader? Is action required? In other words, think about it from the reader’s view.

2. If you send an email, get to the point, fast. Put a conclusion, request, call to action right up front — even in the subject line if possible. If in the email body, put it in the first line: “Could you meet Tuesday, 28 September, at 2 pm to discuss product introduction strategy?”

Don’t use the mystery novel approach — giving history, how you got to where you are, and FINALLY the punch line. Put the most important information at the start.

3. Make it easy to read. Use white space. Use bullet points. Toss passives and, as Strunk and White say, “avoid needless words.”

4. Finally, don’t perpetuate bad habits. Model what you want to see — short, informative headings, no forwarding unless people need it, no lazy “reply all” responses. Instead, take a few simple steps to emerge from the email underworld.

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University.