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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Write directly and clearly. Use bullet points. Write as if to a junior high schooler.
- I use the phrase “no action required” for everyone who does not need to take action
- Make the title clear. All surveyors know this is the most valuable real estate.
- Don’t send the email. Call or IM the person if the content is long or has nuance.
- Address the email to specific people. Tom – ABC, Billy – XTC, Joan – No action required.
- Ask specifically for what is needed. (i.e., Please review excel and give feedback by 5pm)
- 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).
- 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)
- Careful with the REPLY ALL. Pretend like it costs you $20 every time you do it.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use email as documentation of decisions made – good reference for the future
- Have your friend proof-read your emails for clarity before sending to many people
- 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.
- 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.“
- 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.
- 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)
- 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 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 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 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 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 is the next physical meeting? Is this leading to a physical meeting? Are there logistics / meeting details to cover?
- 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?