Being Heard in the Age of E-Mail
E-mail has been around for a while. And
even though we have augmented e-mail communications
with newer technologies, like team rooms, and chat and
video teleconferencing, e-mail remains, for most businesses,
the primary communications mechanism. It has become
such a powerful and pervasive component of our communications
toolbox that people who sit so close to us that we can
hear them type use it to communicate with us.
And the average knowledge worker receives
LOTS of e-mails each day. In fact, most of us receive
so many that we feel overwhelmed and almost paralyzed
when we look at the screen showing how many new mails
we have received. Yet despite e-mail's ubiquity and
popularity, users, in general, are not proficient at
its use. So here are ten tips to help you make the most
out of this critical business tool... without letting
it consume you.
1. Get the right fit. Firstly, you need
to determine if e-mail is the right vehicle for your
communication. It is - if and only if - if meets at
least one of these criteria:
- The content of the communication needs
to be documented.
- The recipient is unavailable (by phone,
instant messaging or in person), not co-located or in
a different time zone „h It is not time-sensitive.
- There are multiple recipients who are
not co-located or available simultaneously. (Read the
caution below in Number 3 about broadcasting e-mails).
- The subject does not require a lot of
back and forth discussion.
Even if you decide that e-mail is the
right medium, don't create a mail or respond too quickly
or emotionally to e-mails you receive. "Sometimes the
phone is better for difficult interactions. You need
the personal contact to resolve matters and certainly
don't want to document things in ways you may later
wish you hadn't said." cautions Janet Jordan, communications
expert at Keynote Communications in Boston.
2. What's my objective, anyway?
As with any business correspondence, before you put
finger to key, you should really ask yourself, what
is my objective in sending this mail. Is it to inform,
persuade, motivate, request action, etc.? Knowing this
up front will help you craft an effective e-mail.
3. Whose business is it?
Don't copy the world. Just ensure that the people who
really need to see this communication receive a copy
of it. If it needs to go to a group list, it is probably
content that is better posted in a team room or to an
intranet site. The mail you send should just reference
where the recipients can find the information.
Copying a large number of people or sending
it to a group list causes two potential problems. First,
many people who don't need to see it do, and you are
clogging up their in-boxes; and Secondly, by "cc:ing
the world", you can easily detract from the effectiveness
of your message. Studies show that when faced with a
deluge of e-mail, many of your fellow human beings filter
out e-mail that appears to be for the masses. Essentially
we're facing the electronic version of the "this doesn't
apply to me syndrome" that has plagued humankind for
ages. The message: if you want to reach individuals
don't treat them like the masses.
4. Make the subject clear, direct and
The Subject line can be the most important
part of the mail. It can be the factor which helps the
recipient determine if he/she is going to open it. So,
make it clear and as descriptive as possible. How many
times do you see a subject like: re:re:re:re:re:re:re:re:re:re:fwd:stro?
If you are forwarding a mail or replying to a mail -
change the subject if you need to make it more accurate.
Mark things urgent, or routine, in the subject. But
use 'urgent' sparingly - if you mark everything urgent,
you may unknowingly build a name for yourself as the
"boy who cried wolf" and cause people to eventually
disregard the urgency of your mails (and even cause
a few snickers as people review their in-boxes).
5. Set the scene.
Few people would open a meeting asking
colleagues to share their opinions on a key topic without
providing enough history to ensure all participants
have the same background information. Yet many of us
don't take the opportunity to use e-mail in the same
way. As with any communication, what you say upfront
can dramatically impact the effectiveness of your e-mail.
Spending a few minutes to summarize a situation before
launching into a recommendation or asking recipients
to share their opinions helps you build your credibility
and make the most of the medium as a way to communicate
and build consensus. It may seem obvious, but by simply
creating a section in your e-mail that says 'Background'
can help save your readers effort thereby aiding your
cause in getting everybody "on the same page."
6. Get to the point.
Get to the point in the first few sentences.
Have you ever noticed how effective newspapers are at
conveying key information in a small amount of space?
You can achieve the same results by putting key information
up front in catchy wording. Tell them the "who," "what,"
"when," "why," and "how." The result: you quickly inform
your readers about key information and give them the
queues to easily determine if it's worth their while
to read on. They'll appreciate it.
7. Be brief.
If you've got a lot of information to
share; consider writing an executive summary and attach
a longer document to the mail or post it somewhere and
include a link. Don't expect people to read through
a 10 page e-mail to find the pertinent content. The
time that people can devote to e-mail is precious, so
tell them what they really need to know up front and
provide access to further detail should they have need
8. Be clear.
We need to be extra clear in composing
e-mails. Communication is made up of a lot more than
just words. When we communicate in person, we use words,
facial gestures, body language, and tone together to
deliver a complete communication. With the invention
of the telephone, we lost the physical component of
communication and with e-mail we have added another
layer of abstraction - and we are left with just the
words. Don't get me wrong, words are very powerful things!
In fact, your choice of the words themselves and how
you arrange them in prose becomes all the more important
when they're not accompanied by those other elements
that we experience in face-to-face communication. This
makes it critical that we choose our words carefully
to ensure that there is only one meaning that can be
discerned from each sentence. If you're authoring an
e-mail that is particularly important you may want to
consider writing it in word processing software such
as Microsoft Word. The added benefit of built in dictionary,
thesaurus and grammar checker can give you the piece
of mind that your form is top notch so you can focus
on the e-mail's content. And when composing a multiple
paragraph e-mail consider including headlines above
each paragraph to provide greater clarity and guide
the reader through your thought process. For example,
the headlines for a mail dealing with a departmental
challenge might be: 'Background, The Issue, Potential
Solutions, My Recommendation, What I Need From You."
9. Use power tools.
Another way to ensure that your communication
is clear and accurate is the appropriate use of text
styles and fonts. But be careful not to create an e-mail
that combines too many font types and colors; there's
a fine line between using formatting options to aid
your reader in negotiating content and creating a document
that's more suitable for the wall of your daughter's
kindergarten classroom. And remember that if you're
sending your mail outside the company, the recipient
may not be able to see your creative use of text options.
Simple uppercase and punctuation may be your best tools
in this case.
10. Make your expectation clear.
Tell the recipient(s) what you want them
to do next and when it needs to be done. And give them
the info they need to do to do it. Phone numbers, fax,
e-mail addresses, snail mail addresses should all be
part of your e-mail template. And make your e-mail template
reflect your personal Brand. In addition to your writing
style, you can use a consistent on-brand template to
further communicate your personal brand attributes.
About the author:
For nearly 20 years, William Arruda has been working
with some of the world's most valuable Brands, including
KPMG, Lotus, IBM, and Primark Corporation. Combining
his brand experience with his passion for people, William
founded Reach (www.reachcc.com),
the world's first brand management company for organizations
and individuals. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.