How many emails does it take to change a light bulb?
Just one, if it’s written effectively.
At least three, in my experience, if the sender’s email skills are dim.
But if you’re a smart sender, your well-written email shines a light on how and when you want the reader to respond.
Everyone knows what do, gets on with their job, and things move along at a happy, productive pace.
If you’re a slapdash sender, you presume that your reader has ESP and endless time to fumble around blindly in the dark recesses of your mind trying to figure out what you mean.
And if you’re the frequent recipient of such emails, you feel frustrated several times a day – as well as annoyed, disrespected, disrupted… maybe even a little murderous!
COVID-19 has forced us to rely on email a lot more in recent months and, as with video conferencing techniques, we’re discovering whose skills development has been neglected.
Here’s a story from the ‘dark side’
I recently endured this email exchange (for his own safety, I won’t speak his name aloud):
Monday 6.52 am
He: Hey Leanne, we need to talk about the project.
Monday 8.15 am
Me: Hi Z
The xxxxxx project?
I have time today between 10 am and 1 pm, or tomorrow between 9 am and 12 noon. Which of these times suit you best? Do you want to do this by phone or would you prefer a Zoom call or maybe a Teams meeting?
Monday 11.00 am
He: No the xxxxxx job. They want an update on Friday.
Monday 11.23 am
Me: Hi Z
I wasn’t aware that project had the green light. No problem, though. How about I call you at 12.30 today to discuss it? What do you want to cover first?
Monday 2.21 pm
Me: Hi Z
I’ve tried to call you a couple of times today, but you must be in back-to-back meetings. Shall I send you a Zoom invite for tomorrow at 9 am?
Monday 3.54 pm
He: Sorry, have been running an online workshop today. Let’s do after 2 tomorrow.
Monday 4.05 pm
Me: I’m not available tomorrow afternoon, sorry. What’s the best time for you on Wednesday? I have no other meetings or calls scheduled yet. Let me know what time suits you and how much time you think we’ll need to cover what you want to talk about and I’ll send you a Zoom link.
Tuesday 8.07 am
He: I’m on the road all day Wed. Let’s do Thursday.
Tuesday 8.32 am
Me: O.K. Which of these times suits you best? 9.30 am, 11.15 am or 1.30 pm? Shall I call you or send a Zoom invite?
Tuesday 2.11 pm
He: I’ll call you.
Thursday 2.35 pm
Me (to voicemail): Hi Z, do you still want to discuss the xxxxxx project?
You get the picture. You’ve had your productivity plundered like this too.
A Project Management Institute report revealed that ineffective communication is the main reason for project failure one-third of the time. It also has the biggest negative impact on project success more than half the time.
The future’s not looking bright for Z’s project, is it?
How much time and energy would we have saved if the first sent email minimised the delays that information gaps inevitably cause?
Being concise is encouraged, but not at the cost of actual communication, aka shared meaning.
What can you do instead?
Here’s a practical guide/checklist for time-saving, sanity-surviving emails that will keep your team from wanting to electrocute their slapdash-sending colleagues.
1 – Does this need to be an email? What’s the best way to achieve the response you want when you want it?
2 – Think about how and when your reader is likely to see this – on a mobile phone while on a train? At their desk with dual screens? The context of the reading should influence your choices for the message.
3 – Match the subject line with the message below. Your reader won’t open it if the reason to do so is not obvious. Use a verb to indicate the action required, e.g. “XYZ report ready to review”.
4 – State the reason for writing (the connection, benefit or importance to the reader), e.g. “Here’s the update on Project XYZ you asked for after Tuesday’s meeting.”
5 – Explain what you want the reader to do + when + why, e.g. “Please use the Track tool to mark up any changes and return the file to me by Wednesday COB. That will help me have the final version ready for your signature first thing on Thursday morning (the submission is due at 11.00 am).”
6 – Keep it short and focused. If you’ve typed more than 150 words, consider summarising your message with bullet points and putting the detail in a linked or attached document.
7 – Use subheadings, bullet points or numbering to help your reader scan for the key points.
8 – If there’s an attachment or link, say so.
9 – Confirm you’ve included everything your reader needs to understand for taking the action you want and when, including links and attachments.
10 – Fix typos and irregular formatting.
11 – Check your tone is right for the context, relationship and purpose.
12 – Revisit steps 1-11 before hitting the send button (assuming the spellcheck will start automatically!)
Imagine how much better your team will work together when they start using this guide for emails… no more miscommunication risking your relationships with clients.… no more time wasted sorting out the confusion and blame games…
Teams work better together when they understand each other’s communication styles and have the ability to meet expected standards.
Has reading this been a ‘lightbulb moment’ for you, revealing what might be stopping your team from connecting and staying switched on?
Ask me about in-person and online training to boost your communication-powered performance.