E-mail is a great tool that has become both a blessing … and a curse. What was designed to be a productivity enhancer has slowly become a drag on productivity. When I started my career twenty-five years ago, email was in its very earliest incarnation. We had to log onto a terminal hooked up to a mainframe computer that was difficult to use. Thanks to this setup, no one wanted to linger on the machine. It forced us to know what we wanted to communicate before we logged in and to get right to the point. We learned to write shorter, punchier emails. Today, email is ubiquitous, much easier to use, and abused. Ask any manager how many e-mails he receives in a given day and the number will easily be well over one hundred—and even a thousand or more in some cases. Nothing says, “I am stuck in busyness and unproductivity” more than having to dedicate hours to reading emails unrelated to what you are trying to accomplish.
In a recent ‘At Work’ survey, respondents said that more than half (54 percent) of the e-mails they receive are either average or poorly written. Of course, only 14 percent of those surveyed rated themselves as sending “average” or “poor” e-mails, whereas 86 percent believed they are either “good” or “extremely good” at writing e-mails. Clearly, what we think we send is not what recipients believe they receive! Rather than focusing on that is wrong with email, let’s focus on how to reinvent email as an effective tool.
Don’t use email to do your thinking for you
Too many people use email to capture their thought processes rather than their conclusions. This approach only turns email into something akin to learning calculus at school. At school our teacher wanted to know the answer and how you got to the answer. Your logic flow was part of the answer and your grade.
Writing emails at work is not like doing calculus at school. Always assume no one is interested in how you came to your conclusion. They are only interested in what impacts them and their work and anything on which they need to take action.
Make your request clear
When publishers lay out a newspaper, they place the most important news “above the fold.” When you build a website, you don’t want people to have to scroll to far down the page or do multiple clicks to get to the key content.
You should think the same way about your emails, especially when you are making requests. If you ask for something, always put that request, including names and dates related to the requested action, in the first two or three sentences of your email. Do not assume that the reader will read far enough to see the request buried in all of the detail.
Limit emotion of all types
Now, I use humor a lot in the workplace, both in meetings and in presentations. Humor can cut through a lot of noise when you communicate and it can help a team rally around a common thought or issue. Humor can have a very powerful role in workplace but it rarely belongs in email. This is especially true of sarcasm, which is very easy to misinterpret. The reader almost never gets what you are trying to communicate.
Keep your emails factual and focused on the matter at hand.
Use the save button before the send button
People annoy us all. People do stupid things. They might not mean to do them but they do. Some people even revel in being controversial.
When we were young and got angry, people told us to count to ten before saying anything. When you need to be cool and show that you have a levelheaded approach to problems, the last thing you want to do is send an email when you’re not in that frame of mind. This is particularly true if the email is something you wrote while feeling frustrated or annoyed.
If you are writing an email about an emotional or difficult topic, such as a performance review or a follow up to a contentious meeting, save the email. Then, come back to it in 30 minutes or even the next day and decide whether you want to send it in its current form or at all.
Use the phone
Although there are benefits to sending emails rather than making phone calls, my best tip on emails is when not to email. In at least two scenarios, using the phone is always the better answer.
The first comes from the fact that we live in a litigious world. These days, an email lasts forever and there is no such thing as privacy in the workplace. In many cases, the laws and regulations governing publicly held companies require strict adherence to document retention rules. If you don’t want someone else to read what you wrote, don’t send it via email.
The second scenario is more critical. If you the subject matter you want to discuss is important and sensitive or personal, a phone call or face-to-face discussion is always the better option.
The Bottom Line
Email is a great tool for communicating, although we are never as effective as we think we are going to be. Stop and think twice. Make sure you are using email for what it was meant to do.