Much has been written in the last decade about the black hole that many of our email in-boxes have become. Late last year, Ryan Holmes, Hootsuite’s CEO , wrote a piece in Fast Companydeclaring that email had become the biggest workplace time waster—a Pony Express of business communication that it’s time to put down in favour of more efficient collaborative communication tools.
Don’t blame the email messenger
Email still plays a key role in communication for all of my clients. From where I sit—communicating most of my working day with people in professional service firms and not for profit organizations—email’s problems do not stem from email itself, but from how we use and often abuse it as a business tool. After all, email demands the same rigour as any other form of written business communication, from annual reports to instant messages: get to it, be brief, be professional, and make the text easy to read.
Abe and Andrea’s guide to pleasing email readers
Abraham Lincoln (whose presidency, by the by, began the same year that the Pony Express ended) said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Planning is the key to beautiful email. While sharpening your axe, ask and answer three things.
1. Why am I writing this email? In other words, what do you want or need the reader or readers to do? You may want them to respond to your question by 3pm so you can take the next step in a project. You might want them to know that everything on the project is under control. You might want them to tell your assistant whether they are available to meet for lunch next Tuesday. You might want to explain the three options mentioned briefly at the meeting so they can come back to you with a preference. You may be offering some feedback on a recent piece of work. Being clear on your purpose allows you to: (i) tell the reader why you are writing, in the subject line and in the first paragraph; and (ii) tells you whether you need to send an email at all. The urgent question, lunch plan, and feedback emails above might be quicker or more appropriately handled by phone.
2. Who should I send it to? Understanding the purpose of your email lets you clarify who should receive it. If you copy someone in, tell them and the other recipients why. For example, “Cara, I’m copying you in in case you have anything to add to the three options I set out.” “Sam, please put a copy of the memo on the file.” “Mark, I’ve copied you to keep you across project developments – if you’d prefer I didn’t, or just want occasional updates, let me know.”
3. How do they want it? Often you can tailor an email’s format or content to what a reader needs to do their job quickly, or because of particular preferences. But it’s fair to say that we all want many of the same things in an email. Tell me straight up—in the subject line and first couple of lines of text—what it’s about and what you need me to do by when, if anything. For example, “I am writing to ask if you have time to help me plan the Big Project due to get underway next month.” “You asked me to let you know how the Fridays interviews went.” “I am organizing the client lunch on Friday and need to know your restaurant preference.” Be brief. Put large chunks of information in attachments or tell me where to find it if I need it. And proofread it.
Happy dumplings, Lincolnites. Email me.
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