Is there anyone out there that is completely satisfied with the email communications of their company? Show of hands? OK...so...no one?
Don't worry - I am here to share a few thoughts and techniques to help your team get better, as well as dispell a few myths.
Like some of the other blog posts on the site, this one has a companion presentation. This one also has a PDF version of the slides provided for free here. You can also bring me in to talk to your leadership group (highly recommended). You can read more about that on my speaking page.
One last point - this is called Email for Leaders. This means that there might be a few hard truths in here about responsibility, leadership and management (also known as "not leadership").
Like just about all of the world's problems, problems with corporate email are communication problems. This is bad. Like, REALLY bad. Because email is the "official" communication tool of just about every company in the world. It's not going anywhere.
So, if we can assume that the problem of ineffective email communication is not going away...and we can probably also assume that the problem is not going to fix itself...what can we do?
Let's spend a little more time defining some of the key issues:
- Email goes on the "permanent record", or something very close to it. Just because you delete an email, you shoud not assume that it is not still alive and well on a computer server somewhere in the corporate infrastructure or in the cloud.
- Email is "black and white". There is no voice modulation...or voice IMmodulation. There are also no hand gestures. Anyone that has seen me speak before knows that, as an East Coast Irish-Italian, an inordinate portion of my communication is non-verbal. Like, distractingly so on occasion. If I had to give a speech in handcuffs, I'll bet I would sound...uh...less than proficient.
- It magnifies existing communication problems on your team, as well as creating problems of its own. Email is unlike any other communication medium, and is a fickle beast. Sorry -- them's the facts.
Bottom Line Up Front (B.L.U.F.)
OK...so, it is in the second section, and therefore not quite all the way "up front", but it's still a good idea to call out the key takeaways as early as possible. If you do not know about B.L.U.F. yet, do not worry. Keep reading, and you will know all about it. On to the key takeaways:
- Email communication issues, just like any other issues on your team, if you are any kind of leader at all, are YOUR FAULT. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Deal with it. Embrace it. Or be a fraud. It really is your call. But who likes a fraud? Just sayin'.
- If you make an honest effort to implement the changes suggested below, your email communication should get much better.
- Better email communication should increase team effectiveness and time management...maybe even increase corporate performance as a nice byproduct.
- Implementing any changes you learn about in this post should NOT be the end of your journey to improve not only email communication but corporate communication in general. Effective communication is an ever-evolving process that should be INTENTIONALLY nurtured up and down the corporate chain of command.
So, email kind of sucks. We can all agree on that. Hopefully, we can also agree that the fact that it sucks really doesn't matter. Not one bit. It's not going anywhere.
- The average business email user RECEIVES 88 emails per day. Only 12 of those are spam.
- The average business email user SENDS 34 emails per day.
SOURCE: "Email Stattistics Report 2015-2019" by Radicati.
So, that data is a little old. I am sure Radicati is awesome. They must be, since their report is $2,500. Let's just use the stale data and agree that there are enough emails rolling into everyone's Inbox that it is a time management challenge.
Throwing out the spam...that gives us over 100 opportunities to use email properly for every corporate user. It also gives us over 100 opportunities for at least one recipient to feel confused, alienated or ignored. Since this is a guide for LEADERS, guess whose fault it is if anyone feels confused, alienated or ignored by your email, response or lack of response?
Also, when it comes to email, everyone is a leader, and has responsibilities. You are the leader of your Outbox, and everything it produces. Most people can kind of understand that. You are also the leader of everything your Outbox fails to produce.
The Excuse Leaders Use
I don't have time to reply to every email. I don't even have time to figure out which are important and which I can ignore.
In other words: I have poor leadership skills, poor time management skills or both. Most probably both.
The maximum effective range of an excuse is ZERO meters. Fact. Also, if you are a leader, and you are using an excuse...for ANYTHING...EVER...you are probably more like a manager...at best. That is a discussion for another post. For now, let's just say that any time someone hears you make an excuse, you should assume that you lose some of their respect.
Hopefully, the tips and tricks coming in the following paragraphs will enable you to stop being such a whiner and take charge of your own email and help your team take charge of theirs.
Once again - if your team members cannot compose their emails to you in such a manner that it is readily apparent to you which ones require an action and which ones do not, guess whose fault it is? Are you sensing the pattern here yet?
Key Concept - Always Respond When Required
Here are the rules. Treat every one of them as non-negotiable for every member of your team.
- You should provide a required response always. No exceptions. Don't worry - we will define what constitutes a required response, how to spot it, and how to provide it, in the next section.
- You should do so within 24 hours.
- If you fail to do so, you are saying one or more of the following, whether you realize it or not.
"I have more important things to worry about than responding to your email right now." This is acceptable as a response. Example:
I am swamped right now. Please circle back with me next week.
"This is not my problem." or "I cannot help you." These are also acceptable. Example:
I cannot help you with this. Please reach out to Jonathan San Marcos.
"My time is more valuable than yours." This is a given. You make more money and have a higher position in the corporate food chain. Duh. Still not an excuse to not respond to an email that requires a response. Never. Not even one time.
Key Concept - When Is a Response Required?
There are two scenarios where a response is required to an email. They are:
- If ANY business email ASKS you for ANYthing EVER, a response is REQUIRED. No exceptions. Ever. This is NOT NEGOTIABLE. Simple, no?
- This one is negotiable, or at least flexible. It is also pretty simple to understand. Whatever works for the team. Example:
- You have a standing weekly meeting every Tuesday to discuss potential hotfixes to your production system.
- Every Monday, an email goes out to the entire list of invitees listing the hotfixes the Release Manager already knows about.
- The accepted standard is that anyone that has new information (e.g., an additional hotfix to be discussed that week, a hotfix that is not ready and should not be discussed that week, etc.) will "Reply All" to the email with their proposed changes to the meeting agenda.
- There is no ASK required in the Monday email. Everyone knows what to do.
Key Concept - Classification
When we talk about classification of emails, we are talking about an individual user, at the point of attack, being able to, from just the email's subject and first paragraph, determine if he or she should respond, ignore, archive, delete, etc. This is the goal.
Think about how tough this goal is to achieve with the current emails that are flooding your Inbox. When you implement the tips and tricks mentioned in the Writing and Responding sections below, that goal should hopefully get more within reach for you and your team.
Setting Up Rules
I decided to break this out into its own section because it requires some special care. Most email tools/apps will give you the ability to pre-classify emails based on some common attributes (word(s) in the subject, to/from address(es), etc.). You can even use these rules to route emails to a particular folder. Classification, done.
Not so fast. By all means, do not shy away from this valuable tool, but whenever you set up a new rule, you should monitor it very closely for a while to make sure that it is handling all of the emails it is supposed to handle, and ONLY the emails it is supposed to handle.
Even one improperly classified and/or routed email is one too many.
Key Concept - The Golden Rule
Do unto others... Everyone understand? So very simple, but not only a good way to conduct yourself in the corporate email arena, but in most others things as well.
Just. Be. Nice. Got it?
Let's bring it home a bit for leaders. After all, that is the point of this entire exercise.
Your place within the corporate organization chart speaks for itself.
You do not have to act like a jerk for folks to realize you are in charge. In fact, acting like a jerk, and showing the weakness of character that requires, might actually make you look like less of a leader and more like something else. Something not good. Not good at all.
Once again, remember that there are no voice inflections, hand gestures, etc., over email. Even mild jerkiness can look like ass-hattery of the worst kind...and, more importantly, can feel that way to people reading your emails.
This is true in active email communications (writing and responding), as well as inactive behaviors (failing to respond, and the unspoken volumes it says about you and how you feel about your worth as compared to the person waiting for your response).
This section will contain several techniques you and your team can use to compose better emails. If you decide to implement one or more of the techniques, you should hold yourself and your team to the standard unilaterally and without exception.
An important concept here is to foster communication and holding each other to standards both up AND down the chain of command. You have every right to demand clear communication from your boss, and the folks that work for you have every right to demand it from you as well.
Practice the techniques until they become second nature, and include as many of them as possible and/or practical in EVERY email you send. This will help you drive toward better communication, less confusion and more efficient time management.
Technique - Call Your B.L.U.F.
"Bottom Line Up Front", or B.L.U.F., is a concept taken from military communications. Simply put, you should make every effort to put the most important information in the communication (the bottom line) as close to the beginning of the communication as possible (up front).
The concept is designed to facilitate INFORMED decision making in rapidly evolving military situations where consequences are a bit more dire than whatever corporate issues your emails are trying to solve. That alone probably makes it good enough for your email challenges, no?
When using written communication, such as email, you can also use text formatting, as well as positioning, to highlight what is important. Use as many techniques as possible to make the important information stand out.
For corporate email, B.L.U.F. facilitates classification, determining the ask and crafting proper responses.
Technique - The Ask
Let's talk a little bit about The Ask itself. First of all, and this unfortunately does not go without saying, if you are asking for something, call it out. Far too many people miss this or overlook it. This presents a problem, as the ability to read minds is more rare than you think.
So, if your email DOES have an ask, it is most likely one of the most important parts, no? Use B.L.U.F. and put it near the top. Better yet, how about putting it in the subject, or at least hinting at it in the subject? Use some easy-to-understand key words.
Information Architecture First Draft - ACTION REQUESTED
Offer Letter for New Junior Developer - APPROVAL NEEDED
One caveat - please do not go overboard with your word choice. Words like "URGENT" and "REQUIRED" are venturing into the "being a jerk" category. By all means, if it really IS urgent, use the word. Just try to avoid crying wolf with it. It is jerk-y, and will dilute your message the more you use it. Remember, just be nice.
Technique - Economize
Another great technique to improve the ability of all recipients of your emails to manage their time is to economize your words. This flies in the face of our natural human desire to hear ourselves talk. Stick with the tips below, and your email recipients with thank you for sure.
- Make every email only as long as it needs to be.
- Be positively draconian with yourself and others as you implement this change.
- If an email response has 7 words when 6 would do...point it out.
- Notable words that are always approved for use:
- Thank You
Another key concept here is not just economizing your words, but economizing the number of emails as well. Everyone has been involved in a long-running email thread where more information comes out with each back-and-forth. Think about how many of those could have been avoided if the original emailer would have spent a little more time thinking about things and included all the pertinent information.
Wait a second, Joe - you just told us to minimize the number of words, and now you are telling us to make our emails longer. WTF?
Sorry to provide a consultant answer, but well...I am a consultant by trade. So...it depends. But answer this one question to determine what works for you...you can (and should) ask this question for each email, and your answer can be different for each email.
Is it better to create a longer first (and hopefully only) email, or is a back-and-forth exchange more likely to help solve this issue PROPERLY and in the shortest time possible?
There are exceptions to everything, and there are always emails that address complex issues. It is extremely difficult to write emails about these kinds of issues and still economize. Pay attention to the next technique (The Executive Summary) for a way to get the benefit of economizing while still providing the detail required for your most complex issues.
As we have already seen, several of these techniques are related and can be combined. The Golden Rule applies here, as always. Everyone has gotten an email of 3 paragraphs when 3 sentences would have sufficed. Do your recipients a favor. Cut out the fluff.
Technique - Executive Summary
The Executive Summary is a tool used traditionally in longer documents. It is designed to provide a synopsis of the key points of the document to an executive, so he or she does not have to spend their valuable time reading throug the entire document.
Using this approach for longer emails is a great tool, not just for executives but for anyone that is going to read it. You can call it whatever you want: Executive Summary, Key Points, Overview, etc. Think of it more as an approach than a required section of a long email. Notable exceptions:
- You are actually writing an email for consumption by real executives. They have more demands on their time and need the summary. There is a reason why it is called an EXECUTIVE summary, after all.
- The subject matter is extraordinarily complex. The fringes are easy to deal with. You know when it's a quick hitter...and you know when nothing but an email novella will do. Knowing how to handle the stuff in the middle is an art. Work together with your team to learn, teach and find an approach that works for you.
If you are using an Executive Summary, make sure you call it out. Use an appropriate name, like those mentioned earlier in this section. Put it at the top of the email (B.L.U.F.)
Even if you don't feel like you need a formal Executive Summary, you can accomplish this by using one or more of the other techniques.
Hit the highlights in a clear, concise manner at the very top of the email. (B.L.U.F.)
Keep it as short as possible. One bullet point, with no more than one sentence, per key point or concept. (Economize)
Close the section with descriptive text, such as "See Below for More Detailed Information"
Technique - W5H
Hopefully, everyone has heard of "The Five W's". Who, what, where, when and why. Since we want to make things as clear as possible and prevent a back-and-forth thread when one email should suffice, let's throw the concept of How in there as well. Use these tips to write better emails:
- Use as many of these as possible and/or practical. Every time.
- Use them in your Asks.
- Use them in your Responses.
- Be as clear as you feel you need to be. Know your audience and how they work to solve problems.
Please Issue Ed Johnson's Corporate Laptop
Who - IT Support Staff
What - Please issue Ed Johnson his client laptop
When - A.S.A.P.
Why - Ed starts at his first client next week. He needs his laptop ASAP to verify access and install any tools he needs prior to showing up at the client location.
Bringing It All Together
Before we move on to some specific guidelines about the Response, let's talk about bringing all of the Writing concepts together. It has been a lot of information all at once, and most of it is probably new and different for you. Here is a quick recap:
- Be as clear and concise as possible and/or practical. Every time.
- Just. Be. Nice.
- If you have a specific request, put in the email, specifically.
- Put it in the Subject line and/or near the very top.
- Use words like "Request" or "Decision".
- Avoid words like "Required" and "Urgent".
- If appropriate for clarification, call out as many W5H elements as possible.
- If it makes sense, include an Executive Summary.
- It doesn't need to be called an Executive Summary. You can call it an "Introduction" or "Synopsis", or anything else you like.
- Hold yourself and others accountable for writing better emails...both up AND down the chain of command.
- Practice, practice, practice.
Please look at the unified example below, which implements many of these techniques, and contrast it with the standard fare that hits your Inbox every day. Notice how some simple formatting, placement and a general lack of ambiguity allow the recipient to quickly determine what is required and take the appropriate action.
Subject: Basketball Tickets for Client ABC - APPROVAL NEEDED ASAP PLEASE
Requested Action: Please pre-approve the expense described below ASAP. Simply click "Reply" and enter the one-word response: "Approved".
Details: We want to take some executives from Client ABC to the NBA Game tomorrow night and sit in the club level. Our group size (7), coupled with the ticket price ($100/ticket) will cause us to exceed the standard threshhold for extertainment expenses of $500. Therefore, we need Director pre-approval.
Responding to an email is a slightly different exercise than simply Writing one. This section will cover the key concepts and introduce some techniques you can use to make your responses better.
Although the Response is different...you still need to WRITE the response itself. Therefore, all of techniques you learned in the Writing section above are appropriate.
Key Concept - Chain of Custody
If you are the recipient of an email that asks you for something, there is an explicit contract that a) there has been a task created to do what was requested and b) you are the owner of that task.
This means that you bear responsibility for keeping the Chain of Custody alive for that task. The way to do that is explained in the following section, where you will learn about the approved actions you can take and their impact on the Chain of Custody.
This does NOT mean that you own the task forever. Neither does it mean that you have to complete the task yourself.
Key Concept - Response Options
If you are the current owner of an email response task, you have the following options.
We will cover each option in turn.
You have every right, as a human, to ignore an implicit task from an email that requires a response. It is within the realm of possibilities.
It is, however, unacceptable on every level. By anyone. Committed by a leader, it is beyond the pale.
Once again, this is within your rights. Just remember that every time you do this, a puppy dies.
Chain of Custody Implications: If you, or anyone on your team is flat-out ignoring emails that require a response, the Chain of Custody is the least of your concerns. You should be saving every penny you can in preparation for the inevitable karmic retribution for acting like such a jerk.
I think this one is fairly self-explanatory. The task is within your capabilities, and you have the time to knock it out. You take ownership of the response and complete it on your own.
Chain of Custody Implications: None. The task is complete. Even if there are follow-up actions required, you have used your new skills to clearly communicate that "Ask" in your response or another email. That communication will generate a separate implicit task with its own Chain of Custody.
Deferral is an effective tool for any corporate email user, but it is especially germane for leaders. Deferral just means that you push the task out to a future date.
It does NOT absolve you of your duties to accomplish the task. It just buys you time.
Chain of Custody Implications: None. You still own the original task. An effective technique is to maintain task ownership but delegate a separate action for the original requestor to move the process forward. This is a great tool for leaders, as it might not be practical to delegate the decision itself, but you currently have more important demands on your time.
I don't have time to go through all the detail and make this decision right now. If you need an immediate decision, please Reply ASAP. If not, please email me a reminder early next week.
In a referral, you involve a third party that may or may not have been on the original email. If not, you have a responsibility to add that new party as a CC: to your response. An effective technique is to also call out the CC: in the body of the response itself, like so:
I cannot help you with this. Please contact Carl Evans (CC:'d on this email) from the Cloud Support Team.
Chain of Custody Implications: You have officially transferred ownership of the task. Congratualtions. You are off the hook. For now...
There has been a lot of information in here. And...cuz I find writing so damn cathartic...lots and lots of words. I think it makes sense to recap the key concepts and takeaways.
Just. Be. Nice. The Golden Rule applies.
Failing to respond to an email that requires a response is unacceptable and rude.
Improving email communication, like any improvement, can start at any level and radiate outward.
There are some simple techniques that you and your team can use to improve communication, time management and team dynamics.
Writing Techniques and Concepts
- Clearly Communicate the Ask
- Use Executive Summaries
- Who, What, Where, When, Why and How
Responding Techniques and Concepts
- Do Not Break the Chain of Custody
- Use One of the Approved Responses (Complete, Defer or Refer)
I hope some of these tools and tips help you improve the email communication of yourself and your team.
Don't forget to download the companion presentation. Use it to talk to your team about how you can be better at emailing each other. Better yet, bring me in to talk to your team about it. Even better still, bundle up this presentation with one of the other talks on my speaking page and make a day of it.