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How to Write Emails to Nerds (That They'll Actually Read)

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The post originally appeared on Racker Hacker, Major’s blog, and with his permission we have reposted it here.

Standard email etiquette is pretty obvious to most of us and if you’re good at it, you’ll get your point across more often without stepping on toes or causing unneeded confusion. Simple things like identifying yourself well, avoiding sarcasm and adding context to statements are all extremely beneficial. However, writing emails to highly technical developers, system administrators and engineers is a little trickier. These types of email recipients don’t really enjoy handling email (inbound or outbound) and most find that email is just a speed bump which interrupts their productivity.

If you’re not technical, you might be asking yourself: “I need to email technical people and they need to take what I say seriously? How do I do it?” It’s not impossible, but the rest of this blog post should help.

Brevity is key

There are some people who thrive on receiving email, sending email and talking about email that they’ve sent or received. Most nerds don’t feel this way.

You need to get your point across concisely and succinctly so that your email is seen as less of a distraction. Avoid adding a lot of context where it isn’t needed and try to summarize business needs and processes unless details are absolutely critical. If you need to send your email to multiple recipients and some of those recipients need additional details, provide an abstract at the beginning of the email.

Learn the ways of TL;DR

I’ve heard quite a few conversations like these around the office:

Nerd 1: “Did you get that email from [name here]?”
Nerd 2: “The six page one with four PDF files attached?”
Nerd 1: “Yeah. That one.”
Nerd 2: “TL;DR dude, seriously. Did you read it?”
Nerd 1: “Nah. I might read it later.”

If someone’s ever mentioned “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) when your email was mentioned, don’t fret. It’s a quick fix. Just add a quick summary to the top of your email prefaced with “TL;DR”. Provide a really brief summary (bulleted lists are a plus) of your email in the section and then start your email right afterwards. Here’s an example:

TL;DR
 * next software release deploys Monday
 * two bugs remaining to fix
 * we will get started at 8AM Saturday, yeaaaaah

(Missed the joke? Head over to Wikipedia.)

If one of the summary points interests a recipient, they’ll scan your email for the pertinent sections. Some recipients may only need to see what’s in the summary and they won’t bother reading the remainder. Either way, the effectiveness of your email increases by leaps and bounds.

Plain text

Users of mutt prefer plain text e-mails

If you only take away one thing from this entire post, let it be this section. Writing emails in plain text is *highly recommended* if you want a technical person to take your email seriously. Many system administrators I know use mutt, a text-based console-only email reader. Click the thumbnail at the right and imagine what your emails would look like if they’re full of images, stylesheets and background images. Better yet, imagine if your entire email was in an image and the email itself had no text.Here are a few more tips under this category:

•    Don’t use Outlook stationery.
•    Never send emails with an image as the email itself.
•    No Comic Sans at any time. Period.
•    Avoid graphical email signatures (more on that in a moment).

Email signatures

Brevity can definitely be applied to email signatures, too. How many times have you seen emails that end like this:

Frank Frankelton MCSE, RHCSA, RHCE, CCNA, RHCA, LPIC-3, Ph.D., M.D., Esq., CMDBA
Systems Adminstrator Extraordinaire, Database Administrator, All-around great guy
Office: 210-555-1212
Mobile: 210-555-1213
Other Mobile: 210-555-1214
Fax: 210-555-1215
VOIP: 210-555-1216
AIM: frankeltonia
Twitter: @frankyfrank
Jabber: frankfurter@frankeltonisinthehouse.com
Big Company, Inc

 

You might think that nobody would ever send out emails with a signature like the one above, but I’ve seen some that are actually worse. Keep the signature short and only put in the information that people really need to know. Generally, your name and title or department is sufficient for email signatures (unless your local/federal laws require otherwise). Always preface it with a double dash “–” on a line by itself to signify that the remainder of the email is the signature.

Summary

Keep it simple, keep it brief and keep it relevant. While the suggestions above might not apply to every business or every person, following the suggestions will increase the effectiveness of your emails and ensure that your voice is heard on the other end.

I’m really interested to hear your comments. Are there some suggestions you have that I missed in the post? Did I make some suggestions which didn’t make sense or don’t apply to you? Let me know!

Major Hayden is a DevOps engineer working on OpenStack at Rackspace and he writes posts on technology topics for his blog, Racker Hacker.  He is a contributor to Fedora and other open source projects.  You can follow @rackerhacker on Twitter for all of Major’s tweets.

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About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Major Hayden.

Major Hayden is Chief Security Architect and a Linux engineer who has experience working on large-scale OpenStack deployments and automation in Rackspace Cloud. He enjoys writing posts about Linux system administration and security on the Rackspace blog as well as his personal blog.

Follow Major on Twitter @majorhayden.


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4 Comments

Great article, but how many people pointed out that the e-mail signature delimiter has white space at the end? i.e “– ” instead of “–”

I hope a lot of non-nerd types read this…

avatar John Osmon on January 12, 2012 | Reply

Kudos Major on getting a mutt and office space ref into the same blog. :) I know I’m rather infamous for run-on emails — To tech staff no less. ;)

I think most of us here just prefer quick Jabber/ST/IRC Q&A sessions over email diatribes. (speaking more to myself more than to others :)

Tweeks

avatar Tweeks on March 12, 2012 | Reply

Seriously? Custom-tailored emails for snobby IT people? What’s next, how to incorporate cute cat photos so the receptionist reads your emails? Or how many times is the right amount to drop “synergy” into a message to the boss?

Boohoo, people send emails with HTML/images instead of ASCII, and your terminal client from 1995 can’t support it. Let’s all go back a few decades because it is mildly inconvenient for you. Next on the sacrificial alter: trading up our beepers for a smart phone? *GASP!

I’m a big a nerd as they come, and even I find this level of pandering wearing thin. Here’s an alternative: read the email (because it’s your job) and stop acting like “Nick Burns the Company Computer Guy”.

avatar Brian J. Hall on March 12, 2012 | Reply

I like 3 word sentences with a picture (CTRL,Print Screen) and a arrow. Like..

“”WTH????” My fav… their reply “#$%*” one word. :)

avatar Melody on March 13, 2012 | Reply

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