Sadly, 20 email tips

By | July 17, 2016




Consultantsmind - Email Tip

Surprisingly, many people use email poorly. They write long-winded email essays that are ambiguous, and often copy too many people. These sloppy people create more confusion, frustration and rework. In this case, more communication is actually worse. Email tip: Take 15 seconds to think before you send out emails.  What am I trying to say, am I sending it to the correct audience, what are my expectations, can I say it more succinctly, and finally – is this email even needed.

There are a frightening number of books on email (affiliate link). Seems like an inane topic to buy a book. Apply some common sense, think like an executive, and strive for the greater productivity of everyone – not just yourself.  Here are things I do, please feel free to share your tips too:

  1. If you’re just forwarding emails, saying “FYI” or “See below”, you’re just a consulting mailman. At a minimum provide context of the email and action needed.
  2. Add value on the email and move the conversation along to 1) a decision 2) clarity 3) end of the email trail. The goal of  your email should be to help everyone efficiently get the work done and STOP EMAILING. Any email that just perpetuates more email is a problem.
  3. Write directly and clearly. Use bullet points. Write as if to a junior high schooler.
  4. I use the phrase “no action required” for everyone who does not need to take action
  5. Make the title clear.  All surveyors know this is the most valuable real estate.
  6. Don’t send the email. Call or IM the person if the content is long or has nuance.
  7. Address the email to specific people. Tom – ABC, Billy – XTC, Joan – No action required.
  8. Ask specifically for what is needed.  (i.e., Please review excel and give feedback by 5pm)
  9. Know grammar and usage. Read Strunk and White: Elements of Style (affiliate link).  e.g, = for example, i.e,. = that is to say (hat-tip John in comments).
  10. When possible move the conversation forward. Delegate tasks to the right person (e.g., Jack – seems like you are the right person for this, can you follow up and report out?), or tell people what you plan to do if no one comments or disagrees (hat tip: Doug in comments)
  11. Careful with the REPLY ALL.  Pretend like it costs you $20 every time you do it.
  12. If an email thread is “spinning”; take the time to super-summarize the situation like meeting minutes with background, situation, decisions needed.  This will become a “stake in the ground” that all the people will refer to and prevent more “pinging” of emails back/forth.
  13. Develop relationships with the people you work with so you pick up the phone and effectively make decisions without email. As Bain says, become a decision-driven organization here.
  14. Use email as documentation of decisions made – good reference for the future
  15. Have your friend proof-read your emails for clarity before sending to many people
  16. When sending documents (excel, powerpoint etc), explain what’s in the file, and specific things you want reviewed, or done. Do not just send an email with the file. It’s disrespectful.
  17. Don’t show off.  If you are using email to show that you are busy or productive, it’s sad. As the Marines say, “Don’t go admin.
  18. Be proactive.  Follow up on cold-case email discussions and let people know how things turned out. Close the loop and people will love you.
  19. Don’t be an idiot.  Assume that any of your emails can be “discoverable” and read by an attorney someday.  Same goes with your social media.  (hat tip: Karen on Twitter)
  20. Edit mercilessly. Cut out the fat of the email. Be a judge of your own work. Ask yourself the who. what, why questions shown below in red.





QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE EMAILING:

WHY

  • Why are you sending this email?  What is the purpose?  Providing information, getting specific feedback, asking for a decision, or just CYA (cover your a@#)?  Depending on the purpose, you may draft the words and structure it differently.  In this one HBR study here, email takes up 23% of the average employees workday and the average email has only 32 words – basically useless
  • Why use email?  Is this something better handled by IM or by a phone call?  Think like a marketing communications planner who has to allocate their marketing budget to print, radio, TV, and internet channels.  Each method has it’s benefits and costs.  Should this be an email, phone call, or in-person visit?

WHO:

  • Who are you sending this to.   Can you leave them off the email?
  • Who needs to respond?  Is it okay for the most of the people to just be aware and not respond?  If so, let them know it’s not urgent, or no action is required.

WHEN

  • When are you sending the mail?  Are you one of those “over-email” people who respond within 2-3 min, clearly showing that you are not a busy person? Are you sending an email in the middle of the night? Are you sending a reply to an EARLIER email in the thread which takes the conversation off course?

WHAT

  • What is the critically important to communicate?  Put it in the title.  Add bullet points.
  • What result do you want from the email? Do you want a response? Do you want a decision? Are you asking for anything?  What are next steps?  Is it okay if no one responds?

WHERE

  • Where is the next physical meeting? Is this leading to a physical meeting? Are there logistics / meeting details to cover?

HOW

  • How distracting is your email habit to your productivity? HBR has numerous articles on the inefficiency of multi-tasking and poor email habits.

What email tips do you have?

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17 thoughts on “Sadly, 20 email tips

  1. moritzdressel

    Like the recommendations and be handed out to all new joiners. The only thing I do not agree with is the “Reply All”. Perhaps it depends on the level within the organization. But if I put myself into the shoes of a junior level resource, I’d always go with “Reply All”.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thanks for the comment, that is fair. Agreed – you have to be smart about dropping people off the distribution list. Because the last thing you want to do is surprise anyone. I will amend the wording of that bullet a little. thanks for readership.

  2. John

    Just so you know, your two uses of “i.e.” in this post should have been “e.g.” The latter means “for example,” whereas the former basically means “in other words.” Consultants should build as vast a grammar arsenal as possible.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      So true, and great catch. Added another bullet on knowing grammar and usage. Recommended STRUNK AND WHITE. Also, fixed to e.g., thanks for being my 2nd pair of eyes. Thanks for reading.

  3. Doug Gabbard

    Give meaning to silence by using a phrase like, “Unless you tell me otherwise, I will . . .”

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Like it. Only question I have is that silence = agreement, is a little bit tenuous if people say they did not see the email etc. . right? How might we work through retort?

      1. Doug Gabbard

        In that situation, I personally prefer to seek forgiveness rather than permission. I don’t allow my work to be held hostage by someone else’s dysfunctional email habits. And let’s be honest that “I didn’t see the email” is more often an indicator of poor email processing than the result of some computer glitch. Having said all that, I don’t use this tactic in highly sensitive situations when I really do need some guidance before proceeding. I guess it’s about taking responsible risks to keep the ball moving.

        1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

          perfectly fair, will add that tidbit in later. well-said.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thanks for reading.

  4. Gryzor

    Good tips, though I’ll have to take exception with 1 and 3.

    I understand the logic behind 1, but there are *many* instances where a simple forward gets the job done. If I work in tight collaboration and in sync with some colleagues I may not even need to add the customary “FYI”. And I do that almost every day.

    Regarding #3… I’m sorry, but that’s just for stupid people. Email is communication. Would you dumb your oral communication down? Perhaps, if you’re talking to someone who’s not smart, but I don’t expect that in my workplace. Or rather, I do, but I expect those to rise instead of dumbing down my communication…

    Otherwise, valuable tips 🙂

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Like the pushback.

      #1. Get your point entirely. As a corollary thought: the evolution of e-communications will make email less important over time. Group communications through project management software will be more self service and workflow driven – Jura, base camp, asana, salesforce etc. So eventually less need for “FYI” forwarding.

      #3. Yes, perfectly fine. That’s probably just where we agree to disagree a bit. I see email as being very utilitarian and not nuanced. To me email is more like an instruction manual and less like a op-Ed column in a newspaper. If an email starts going past 200words, it’s probably a phone call conversation or SOP or presentation or hallway conversation.

      Thanks for reading and input. All feedback welcome.

      1. Gryzor

        *Always* like pushback 😀

        I think we’re coming at it from different angles, and it probably depends on the kind of business you do via email and – ultimately – how and why you use it.

        On both counts, at least in my line of business, there might be other tools (indeed we do use Jyra or Slack) or ways to say what you will. There are many times, however, when what you have to say is both long and *has* to be in writing. Sure, could be a hallway convo, or a skype meeting or whatever, but more often than not it has to be put down in writing both for practical and typical reasons.

        And of course, bad as it can be, and falling outside the purview of “good communication”, you often have to account for corporate politics.

        On the other hand, funny – you’re writing an article about email and suggesting presentations, but there are many similar articles on presentations (and I tend to agree with them) that say, effectively, that if something can be done with an email just don’t do the presentation 🙂

        1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

          Well said. Thanks for reading. I believe one thing we do have in common is that we are thoughtful about our use of email, when it makes sense, who the audience is, and how to use emails to lean out communications and be effective. Have a productive day and thanks for the conversation.

          1. Gryzor

            Indeed; I think the one tip to rule them all is, “think before you email” 🙂

            Have a great one yourself!

  5. Florian

    Thank you for the tips (and all the great articles in this blog).
    A trick I’ve been using for over a year now: I keep my inbox as empty as possible, mostly because all incoming email will then pop out and l know almost instantly what to do about them.

    You’ll also realise who’s sending fluff/not very useful emails on a regular basis and perhaps be able to manage that. And you’ll get subscriptions under control very fast.
    Less clutter leads to faster decision-making for all your emails. Perhaps also a little peace of mind.

    I also keep in the inbox all emails with decisions and tasks I haven’t taken yet. The emails then work as reminders of things which need to be done asap. If it’s in the inbox, it wasn’t solved yet. When you keep seeing the same email for more than a few days you know something’s amiss.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Yes. That clean mailbox method sounds very effective. Andy Grove, legendary Intel CEO, did the same thing – quick decisions were made almost immediately. Also, my wife is clear mailbox person too.

      When you get a chance -listen to any podcast interview with Cal Newport. He wrote a book called DEEP WORK which completely changed my thinking about distractions and multi-tasking = bad.

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