By now you’re most likely aware of the how-to-email processes. Emails only twice per day, no folders, read once, inbox zero etc. Your standard how-to-email guide will tell you how to process emails…but that’s where they stop.
What I found to be more important than how you process email is how you write and respond to emails. Yes, there’s some good time to save with all the goodies of email processing. But the real gem is being revealed when uncovering the art of writing effective emails.
Emails have evolved to that medium where people think it’s ok to write a book, where more is seen as better, as more professional.
In its true essence, email is just another form of communication. As such it has its sender, message and recipient. Most people are only concerned about the sender (themselves) and the message. Hence, you receive lengthy emails that don’t say much more than blah, that use terminology you don’t understand, that are more a distraction to your work than informative support. This is where most people in today’s business world get it wrong: emails are not about what you have to say. Emails are about what the recipient needs to hear.
And that’s where lots of time is being lost: in reverting with questions to the sender, in asking for clarifications.
Worst case – needing to ask for information that was sent in the original email but hidden in the overwhelming mass of useless content.
The most effective email consists of the following concept:
The message communicates a decision or action to the recipient. The recipient can act directly on that decision or action without needing to revert with questions. Done.
But in business I encounter quite the opposite: lengthy and wordy emails where a first cut of words would get rid of 50% without impacting the message at all. Why does the sender waste her/his time to write words that are … let’s be honest… waste? Why does the sender not appreciate his/her and the recipient’s precious time and floods me with waves of useless phrases just to sound professional?
Because people never have been educated on how to write effective emails. So, if you don’t get a clear response to your emails or are bombarded with follow up questions it’s most likely not the recipient’s fault. It’s yours for not communicating effectively, in a way that gets to the recipient.
Here are my tips for writing effective emails
#1 – Omit the polite waste
For emails to be effective they have to be short. The quickest way you can avoid wasteful phrases it to omit the polite “necessities” of “Hi, how have you been? I hope you had a great weekend.” or “Hi, how are you? It has been a long time since we last caught up.” Yes, it has. Now, what do you want?
Leave that stuff where it belongs: in the bin. There’s no harm in a “Hi, could you please do x by z? Let me know when done. Thanks.”
Efficient (short) and effective (to the point. call for action. understandable. clean.)
#2 Don’t take the brief personal but understand if others do
When someone adopts #1, some recipients perceive this shortness and missing personal touch to be too direct, too rude, too inconsiderate. Grow up guys. It’s about getting work done. Leave your pleasantries to in-person conversations or to after work over a beer or two. Now it’s time to get stuff done.
If you receive countless feedback that your emails are too impersonal (not only 1-2 notes but consistent feedback), then add the following short note to your signature: “In my move to improved productivity I adopt a clean, objective and direct approach to my written communication. This allows me to communicate better with you – understandable, actionable and results oriented.”
#3 – Include your contact details in your email signature
How many times have I received a lengthy email that would require me to draft a reply for the next 30 minutes. It’s more effective to quickly pick up the phone, discuss the details over the phone and confirm actions agreed on the phone via email. And then it happens: scrolling through the last 21 emails we sent back and forth, I cannot find a phone number in his/her signature.
Include your phone number in your signature (make sure you don’t forget your signature on your cell phone’s email app) to allow a quick transition from email to phone and back to email.
P.S.: Email has priority in communications due to one main factor: the recipient can decide when to respond. Phone is the last option for general communications but my first choice for emergencies, short-notice changes to the planned and detailed discussions that would require drafting lengthy emails. Phone calls have their place. Emails do as well. And in some scenarios only one of them is the appropriate one.
#3 – Before you start writing…
Ask yourself the following questions:
a) what do you want the recipient to do with your message i.e. do you need a decision to be made, do you need him/her to take action on something?
b) by when do you need to decision or action to be taken?
c) why should your recipient read your email?
d) what type of communicator is the recipient? Does he/she prefer written over verbal communication? Email is the way but if verbal communication is preferred you might be better of picking up the phone.
#4 – When you start writing…
Structure your email by answering the questions in #3 in sequence but keep it short.
Could you please send me the final project budget (a) tick) by Thursday 12pm (b) tick), so I can finalise the contract for you to kick-off the project asap (c), tick)?
d) tick because Tom likes to respond via email even to phone calls.
#5 – Say what you want upfront (and leave it at that)
When writing emails to busy people, I found there to be quite a significant difference in response rates when asking my question upfront, then explaining the background and the why (if you want to waste time on that).
You know those emails that are 11 paragraphs long, with information you already knew or doesn’t contribute to you taking any action or decision. But in the end there it is: “Could you please…?”, “Can I kindly ask you…?”. No you can’t. You had your time in the 10 paragraphs before to ask. This habit of hiding important information in the end is reserved for the fine print. If you want people to take action, let them know upfront. Then only add other information if relevant to the desired action to take.
#6 – Create a new email thread for each different topic
It’s like playing Whispers-Down-The-Lane. You’re working with John on 2 different projects. He starts an email with the subject “Actions Project A”. In the body (after a lengthy uninformative introduction) he states 5x action items (obviously at the end of the email. They belong to the front, John. TO THE FRONT!).
Kathy replies by saying she has taken care of item 1-3 and is working on 4. She says 5 is responsibility of Mike. Mike replies that he has completed 5 but is working on item 1-2 from Project B. He also thought that the organisation remains liable and requires insurance due to action item 2.
By now you’re confused reading this and the project team has no idea which action is open and closed. I have no idea either.
To keep a clean and searchable communication trail in emails it’s essential to create a new email for a new topic. The above scenario should have created a minimum of 3 new email threads.
When you encounter this, do the following:
a) Send an email responding ONLY to email subject related matter.
b) For matters unrelated to the email’s subject, add a statement saying: I will provide further information on topics X and Y in different emails to keep subject discussions clean and separated.
c) Send a new email covering matters for Topic X. Only send it to people who are required to action or make a decision.
d) Send a new email on Topic Y and send it only to people who are required to action or make a decision.
#7 – Setup templates
Whenever you’re finding you write the same email more than once setup a template and copy-paste it the next time just to fill in the blanks.
Checkout “Canned Responses” in Labs for Gmail.
#8 – Don’t use email for urgent stuff
The beauty about email is the convenience for the recipient – to be able to answer at a time when it suits. Completely the opposite however, are some people’s expectations of receiving a response within the hour. That’s not what email was set out to do. If something is urgent, call. I apply the following rule:
urgent (within next 4 hours) and important > call
anything important but not urgent > email
anything urgent but unimportant > email
This also sets the expectation that I don’t waste peoples time when I call. It’s urgent and important.
#9 – Don’t use email to consciously cover your liability
This drives me nuts every time I see it and just adds noice to your already overflowing inbox. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you had confirmed it in written form via email.” Really? Has humanity become that dishonest and untrustable that every time something could go wrong (not a life or death situation. business or human) it needs to be covered off in written form? What ever happened to “I give you this task in a meeting, phone call etc. and you get it done.”?
This is a whole different thing when working with consistently and proven to be unreliable people. Then I got to cover all my bases and get written confirmation. But when it’s a first time or when someone has proven consistently their reliability and trust, then why would you need to cover your bases with a written confirmation? That’s just a waste of your and the counterpart’s valuable time.
Trust others ability of getting stuff done. When stuff goes wrong, ask yourself: what was the root-cause for it to go wrong. Only when it’s coming down to communication and only when it happens a second time, then start considering written confirmations.
All these techniques to save time on email – less writing, clearer instructions to take action and no misunderstandings as with lengthy emails where the important information gets lost in the sea of business blah.
I saw the biggest change when I put myself in the shoes of the recipient: what do I need to communicate, so the other person can get the job done. What information is unnecessary and adds no informative value. What information is critical to be stated upfront. Why should the other person read my email amongst all the hundreds of emails he/she gets per day.
Start by asking these questions. And email will again become the effective tool it was set out to be: directing decisions and actions in a short brief message and allowing the recipient to reply at a time of his/her convenience.