It’s easy to take potshots at email. We get so many, for a start. We’re copied in unnecessarily on so many. And sometimes we have to wade through screens of email text and emoticons and blather just to figure out what, if anything, we need to know or do.
I’m here to break ranks and announce that I actually like email a lot. It’s fast, it knows no time zones or working hours, and can create a concise record (much more concise than my notoriously chatty voice mail messages). And its downsides? Well the truth is that like its equally maligned tool mate PowerPoint, email gets blamed for crimes that have actually been committed by its users — in other words, those who don’t take time to craft each short message with skill and care. Who don’t get clear on why they are sending the email in the first place. Who don’t carefully consider who needs to receive it. Who fail to convey their message quickly and plainly. Not taking this time to craft an email can have frustrating and time-sucking consequences.
Case study: “What’s your availability?”
Last week, I taught a lunchtime workshop for a group of legal assistants at a Vancouver firm. Over pizza and salad, we started talking about the perils of email. We went around the room sharing estimates of how many emails each person received each day (including those they were copied in on with or without an explanation), and how many they wrote or replied to or printed and filed. Most daily estimates totaled somewhere between 100 and 200. Everyone agreed that emails needed to be fewer, and better.
I gave the group a simple scenario: imagine your Managing Partner is planning a meeting of 12 partners to discuss staff salaries, and wants you to canvas the partners’ availability for the first couple of weeks in November.
Deciding on recipients Start with an email, everyone agreed. “OK,” I asked, “to whom?”. That led to a debate about whether to approach the 12 partners directly, or just ask their assistants, or email the partners and their assistants. It’s the difference between 10 and 20 recipients, I pointed out, so worth considering. The group decided to just email the partners, although we agreed that just the assistants might have been OK, too. One person per partner. And should we copy in the Managing Partner? At first blush, this seemed like a good idea, but the group decided in the end it wasn’t necessary – after all, hadn’t she just delegated this task to us so that she didn’t need to worry about it?
The subject line More discussion here. We started with someone’s suggestion of “Partners’ meeting”, and ended up at the more descriptive, “Checking your availability for partners’ meeting in early November to discuss staff salaries”. The final subject line contains enough detail for someone flicking through their emails to know exactly what’s being sought and – better – that it won’t take long to respond.
The text of the email One workshop participant delighted her colleagues and me by getting straight to the point with her suggested text. “I’m organizing a partners’ meeting to discuss staff salaries. Please advise your availability for the first two weeks in November.” Many heads nodded in agreement. But when I asked everyone to put themselves in the recipients’ shoes, they quickly realized how large and vague the request was — to properly answer it, one would have to provide the details of their available times for ten working days in November 2013 (Nov 1, 4-8, 12-15), and assume what the earliest time (7.00 am? 9.00 am?) and latest time (5.00 pm? 7.00 pm?) would be. We were giggling a bit by this point, imagining these unnecessary logistics times ten people. Replies, retries, and complicated calendar consultations. The more reasonable approach, the group realized, was to consult with the Managing Partner to find a few date and time options, set them out in the email, and ask recipients to reply to them about which ones they can attend.
Closing the loop I told the group to imagine that seven of the 12 partners replied with their availability within 24 hours, and asked how they would finish the scheduling task. Follow up by email, a few suggested. A senior legal assistant pointed out that another email will just cause more delay as you wait around again for answers (which didn’t work the first time), with the calendars of the seven who did respond growing stale. They decided that three quick phone calls – to the partners or their assistants – ran efficiency circles around email at this point.
Pooped? So were we. But the thinking we did and the small differences in the crafting of the email for this simple scenario will save: (i) at least ten if not tens of unnecessary emails from being sent; (ii) the recipients’ time by allowing for a quick response; and (iii) the scheduler’s time and stress in completing the task. Compare the two versions: Uncrafty and crafty.
Crafting emails matters. It saves time for the recipient, and for you. It’s an art and a skill that serves all of us well.