Has email become less urgent — almost irrelevant — as we shift towards more intimate, instant messaging platforms? How to become better at common sense emailing.
“I sent a lot of great emails” is not an achievement worthy of a resume bullet, nor is “answering emails” a remit on most job descriptions. And yet, sometimes it feels like that’s all we do, all day, every day.
I have 17,603 unread emails across 4 accounts. I used to relish the red dot, but now those notifications nag. I sent my first work email in 1996. I’ve spent many hours labouring over beautifully composed emails to my boss that didn’t receive a response, no matter how many times I re-wrote or re-sent them. I have suffered crippling anxiety when I got a one-word email back and also callously used the same technique with my team.
What’s the problem?
We send too many emails. We get too many emails. We don’t read or reply to the emails we receive.
What can you do?
- stop sending so many
- send more useful messages
- deal with your inbox
Establish norms by changing your behaviour first. Send the kind of emails you would want to receive. Lead by example. If you want people to use your rules, start by following those rules yourself.
- If you use short, bulleted lists, people can respond to those bullets individually.
- If you give specific, actionable items at the top, people will usually respond in the same form.
- If you ask a single question, you’ll likely get a quick answer back.
- Aim for a one-word response; it’s better than no response at all.
Prioritize the most effective way to communicate. It’s easy to send off an email in 30 seconds, but it could take someone over an hour to respond to it.
Switch to a more efficient phone call or face-to-face meeting when a conversation has become too complicated or contentious for email.
Always consider your audience
Leaders tend to check email early in the morning or late at night if they are busy in meetings for most of the day. There is also a time management trend that directs us ONLY to check email twice a day, so we’re not constantly in reply mode.
Emailed content has to survive a cost-benefit analysis :
- Cost: how much hassle and pain do I have to suffer to read this information?
- Benefit: what’s in it for me, what will I gain if I read this information?
Write for how we read. Remember that people usually scan instead of reading — online, users only have time to read 28% of the words on the average website. They pay the most attention to information at the top of the page. Keep your email to as few words as possible.
“highly educated online readers crave succinct information that is easy to scan, just like everyone else.” — Hoa Loranger, Nielsen Norman Group .
Grab attention by making it interesting with clear headlines, and scannable text — make key information stand out by using bullets rather than long-form paragraphs.
Compose for impact. Review for clarity and simplicity. Be brief but direct.
Be concise, specify the bottom line, including a requested action upfront.
Communicate useful content immediately
“Why are you emailing me?”
“I have no idea what this person wants.”
Focus on the point. If someone doesn’t know what you want, they likely won’t respond to your email. Make sure you specifically mention what you’d like the action to be.
- Journalists use an inverted-pyramid writing style, “a story structure where the most important information (or what might even be considered the conclusion) is presented first.”
- Military professionals lead their emails with a short statement known as the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) . They declare the purpose of the email and action required. Background information is listed after the BLUF as bullet points so that readers can quickly grasp the message.
“Short emails are more effective than long ones, try to fit all content in one pane, so the recipient doesn’t have to scroll.” — Kabir Sehgal, Harvard Business Review
Use subjects that stand out. A subject line is often the first piece of content people read, and often it is the only thing people read. Use short, keyword-lead subject lines that make sense out of context. After a lengthy email chain “Re: Meeting” becomes irrelevant if you move on to other topics. On mobile, in preview mode, notifications show the first 2 lines so use that top space well.
Use less complicated language. Consider how much harder your brain needs to work when you read terminology that requires interpretation. If you need to google the definition, it’s not a viable abbreviation.
Email is not a filing cabinet.
“I know the email is in here, just hold on.”
“I wasn’t on the distribution list, can you forward it?”
“I couldn’t open the attachment, can you please resend.”
“What was the subject line — meeting follow up?”
“Is Draft 3 the latest version?”
Consider virtual collaboration tools. Rather than emailing drafts back and forth, decide to save relevant information in a secure, central location or shared drive. Establish clear uploading/downloading and document naming protocols.
Make it easy to follow the breadcrumbs. Emailing shared links back and forth won’t eliminate the inbox fishing expedition. Use clear file structures and document naming conventions. Everything should be easy to find — include the file location in all emails or a direct link to the document you are drafting. Saying “it’s in SharePoint, Draft Version 3” isn’t helpful. Saying “See SharePoint/NewYorkOffice/Drafts” or inserting the file’s location path in footnotes of all documents may be better.
Use natural language terms to name files. Imagine doing a google search for a news story, but you or a future colleague can’t remember the author, publication or title. You generally remember what it was about, not what it was called. For example, can you easily identify what information this document provides? StfemailCur0818Curr.doc
“An email inbox evolves into a messy collection of stuff that generally falls into the categories of things to do, things to read, or things to schedule.”— Khe Hy, Quartz at Work
Have reliable downstream systems. Tiago Forte of Forte Labs, a productivity training firm suggests we only need four apps to manage email overload. As you process each message, give yourself two options — respond directly or send to one of the apps you’re using to manage information.
Ideas to try:
- Develop a company style guide — have consistently formatted content for all your documents and web pages.
- Observe a maximum length and template structure with bullets, as opposed to full-text paragraphs
- Wrap text or use a hard return at the end of each sentence — like a newspaper column. Scrolling up or down is more natural than across, particularly on mobile.
- If content runs to 2 pages when printed, it’s probably too long for email and should be a document.
- Strip out extra long signatures to make your emails and email chains shorter. Some email programs (Outlook especially) don’t display images/logos.
- Use a signature that works on one line rather than a vertical signature which takes up valuable space and is better suited to an envelope.
- Draft emails in writing programs that estimate the time it would take to read. Specify this upfront (e.g., a slow reader would take 8 mins to read this). Programs such as Grammarly, Hemingway suggest ways to cut, simplify & shorten copy for legibility and readability.
- Make it ok not to say “thank you” for every email response or at least, don’t “reply all” when you do.
- Keep yourself nice: think before you hit send and watch your tone. If a subject is sensitive, consider a 1:1 to discuss rather than sending an email.
- If copied along with your manager why not take the initiative to respond if it’s more relevant to your remit (ask for forgiveness rather than waiting for permission — at least you quickly know your manager’s POV).
- Unsubscribe to newsletters you never read. Set up unroll.me, use Nuzzel to create a newsletter that covers topics/sources you need to track, delete the rest. You’ll find you even stop reading those after a while.
- Auto-responder: a solution that sets the right expectations and offers FAQs or other information, directs the sender somewhere that might be useful.
- Re-define ‘cc’ to mean FYI, filter those that aren’t ‘to’ you into a separate folder for reference rather than action.
You need four types of apps to achieve Inbox Zero, Quartz at Work, https://qz.com/work/1095665/email-sanity-how-to-achieve-inbox-zero-using-four-apps/
The Essential Guide to Crafting a Work Email, https://ift.tt/1CUpN3C
The Only Five Email Folders Your Inbox Will Ever Need https://ift.tt/2mKJeIZ
How to Delegate Your Email to an Assistant, https://ift.tt/1EmMMPz
How to Write Email with Military Precision https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-write-email-with-military-precision
The Secret to Getting Replies to Your Emails: The One Hand Test http://www.managementcenter.org/article/the-secret-to-getting-replies-to-your-emails-the-one-hand-test/
7 Tips for Presenting Bulleted Lists in Digital Content, https://ift.tt/2oT16SM
Originally published on Medium, written for Nathan Cummings Foundation.