I've written some horrible emails—emails that crashed through the atmosphere of other people's lives and left 500-kilometer tails of smoke and hatred. Other of my emails were not so bad. Here, I list what I consider to be fairly reasonable guidelines for avoiding future comet tails and generally getting the attention for your emails that they deserve.
1. Always be kind. People like you read emails. They have feelings. They have problems like the rest of us. Their house is dirty, they're worried about their taxes, they have random pains that seem to appear out of nowhere, and they have a lot more emails to read after they finish with yours. So be a little light of pleasantness by being friendly and respectful. Don't be a random pain. Besides being nice and thankful where appropriate, you can also show you care by doing the other things on this list.
2. Keep it simple. Short emails take care of business. Short emails get to the point and clearly spell out what's going on. Short emails signal respect, because you took the time to figure out what needed to be said instead of smearing words onto someone else's monitor as if you were wiping something off your shoe. Long emails suck the life out of people. Long emails demonstrate your self-importance and, if you're asking for something, further demonstrate that you are not a low maintenance person. Obviously, if you have something to communicate that takes a lot of words, then the self-importance is warranted. But in most cases, it's not. Simple is the path to a long and healthy life.
3. Pay attention to grammar and spelling. This is an easy way to show that you care. Moreover, failing to do it is a bit like going to work in your pajamas with a bunch of spinach in your teeth. Reread your emails and realize that what you look like says something about what you think about other people.
4. Don't send important emails until you've given yourself time to think about them. This is so important that I'll write it again. Don't send important emails until you've given yourself time to think about them. Important emails are ones where the results of your email are likely to matter. For example, if you write an email to anyone when you're angry, sad, sleepy, or frustrated, then chances are the email is important. Don't send it. Think about it. Then send it. Or better yet, delete it, and write it again when you aren't angry, sad, sleepy, or frustrated. You'll sound nicer and be more likely to get what you want.
5. Accept that some things should be done in person. The reality is that emails are a great way to set up meetings. Talking to people is a great way to do just about everything else. Phone calls, Skype, and short walks together are good human behavior. If you have a long list of technical details, go over them in person if you can and then tell the person you'll write a follow-up email with the list in it. Then when they get your email they'll feel like you're being thorough and be happy to see it.
6. Put your main point at or near the beginning. If you're answering a question in someone's email, put the answer at or near the beginning. Most people get tons of emails from people who want their attention. Some emailers send long paragraphs of text with their request hidden among these long paragraphs, like some kind of search and find. Communicating shouldn't be an Easter egg hunt.
7. If you want something from someone, you might consider what they're getting in return. Emails, like any form of communication, are a kind of implicit negotiation. Most communication is. Sometimes there is nothing specific on the table, except maybe friendship, your integrity, and the possibility that you might help one another in the future. Still, these are important and valuable things, and they are worth nurturing. In these cases, you're providing your respect and friendship and it's helpful to make that clear by saying friendly uplifting stuff.
In other cases, you want something specific. In those cases, let people know what you want. Ask for it explicitly. But by all means, let them also know that you plan to return the favor, give them what they'll need when they need it, or do your share when it's your turn to do it. Sometimes all you have to offer is your good will. For example, if you're asking for someone to provide you with information about something, then you might let them know why you need it, how their help will be appreciated, and how you might keep them in the loop as things develop. In some cases, you can make it clear that you respect the person by telling them what about them interests you: 'Your product looks promising,' 'Your research led me to ask the following questions...', 'I was talking with my friend, so and so, when your name came up.' People like being liked. That's often enough.
8. Minor details: Specific subjects are good. Humor is sometimes good, but interesting is better. For sentences that might be misinterpreted as bossy or mean, a smiley face will help you pass the Turing test. And remember, that it's hard to win with email—in most all cases, less is more.