All roads lead to email.
When clients talk about their presentations, they also ask how they can improve meetings: they’re too frequent, too long, too unproductive. And the reason we have so many meetings is because our colleagues aren’t reading their email. We use one format (meetings) to compensate for the failure of another (email).
Email failure occurs on a large scale.
The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that we spend 28% of our week writing and responding to email. The magnitude of time we spend on email has sparked a range of apps tools (Slack, Yammer, Jabber) and approaches (Zero In-Box, “Never check email in the morning”).
What can we do to improve emails?
First, understand why email often makes a problem worse.
According to psychologist Jeremy Dean, we overrate our ability to communicate feelings through email. Positive emails are likely to be interpreted as neutral, and neutral emails are likely to be perceived as negative.
Ask someone else to read for tone before you send. If you sense that tension might be escalating diffuse the tension by picking up the phone.
When you’re speaking to someone you can read their mood and experience their reaction. We use this to adjust our timing, messages or tone.
We sacrifice this adaptability – and control – when we send a note based on our own mood, our time frame and assumptions. Reliance on email makes us poor listeners.
Second, when you email consider these writing tips:
- Get to the point (with bold font). Let the reader know at the very beginning what it is that you want them to do or learn in a clearly written sentence that is formatted in bold. (PLEASE DON’T USE ALL CAPS.) Use the rest of your email to provide context and details, or if needed yet, links to other resources.
- Optimize for mobile. More than half of email is read on a mobile device, meaning you have less real estate on that screen to get to the point. If your reader is over 40, 50, 60 . . . assume that there is even less room because they’ve been inching that font size larger to accommodate for declining eyesight. Getting to “short” can be hard. Keep reading on how to make the most use of your space.
- Use real words. Buzzwords and jargon are the nutritional equivalent of a Twinkie. A burst of euphoria – it sounds cool – followed by a crash when it turns out 7 people had 7 different interpretations as to what the term meant. (Here’s one clue: if spellcheck is flagging it, now is not the time to “add” it to your dictionary.) If you must use these words, provide your understanding of their meaning.
- Make them smarter, or at least entertain them. If you’re instigating the exchange, you have the burden of proving the value of the communication. If your network knows that you’ll be sending them something of interest – a relevant article or link to book recommendation when “following-up” on leads, or your entertaining memes or pet videos – include them.
- Know when to seek professional help. If you’re not sure about your writing skills, ask a colleague to edit your draft, go ahead and sign up for that writing course that HR has been offering, or order a resource. Ask your colleague to review for content and tone; do you seem impatient, aloof, or overly enthusiastic? Remember the tone bias.
As an editor from Harvard Business Review noted, maybe it’s time to reconsider our approach to email. It’s part of how we build relationships. It shouldn’t be perceived as separate from our “real” work.
If the majority of emails are administrative or transactional – rather than an extension of your broader strategy and goals – that’s a signal of a bigger problem in your work priorities. Talk to your manager. Assemble your team and figure out why you’re all getting sidetracked.
With fewer and better emails, you should see a decrease in the number of meeting and presentation requests. What will you do with all that time?
Note: Like most communication counsel that we provide, we’ve been offenders ourselves. This post was a reminder to sharpen our own writing skills.