Lets start by pointing out that while email is efficient, it is a symbolic representation of what evolved as something much richer; face to face communication. The writing didn’t come first, speech did. And speech was part, just PART, of human communication. And any symbolic representation of an original is going to lack in quality.
A while back I wrote what was initially an internal use only help file on how to write a decent email. The summary is below but I’d encourage you to read the original help file on how to communicate effectively in an email. What follows is an addendum to that help file that is more about dysfunctional organizations than actual communication skills. First the original list in abbreviate form:
- Subject lines – all emails need a well articulated and relevant subject line
- Links – ease of use changes behavior so LINK to what you are talking about.
- Numbered Lists – stop with the bullets. Use numbers so that YOU the sender can prioritize your own message!
- Short Paragraphs – try it. They are good.
- Nickel Words – save them for scrabble.
Additional considerations when writing an email.
- Don’t delegate to the recipient unless that is your intent. Specifically avoid phrases like:
- “Let me know” – a polite way of delegating to someone else the decision making power for the topic. And realize they have three votes; to confirm, deny, or just let it hang out there unanswered like a bill that doesn’t make it through congress. Regardless you are ceding all decision making power to the recipient to “let you know.” Probably not what you or the organization wants. On the other hand, “let me know” is a great way to avoid doing actual work so there is that.
- The “I can do A or B or C. Which do you prefer?” – a common response to a task request that again avoids risk by delegating back to the sender the ultimate decision making power. Granted this is an appropriate response to micromanagers. But then again, if you work for a micromanager you have a whole different set of problems. Stephen Covey talks about the difference between gofer delegation and stewardship delegation. What high performing organizations need is Stewardship delegation capable people who can make decisions and complete the intent of the task more than the specifics. If you are delegating everything back to the sender, you might have fallen into a gofer mindset.
- Don’t be rude.
- NO SCREAMING!!!! – enough said. I don’t care who you are. If you can type, you can hit a key, and the shift-lock is just another key on the keyboard. No screaming please.
- “Thank you in advance” – arguably the rudest, most passive aggressive way to end an email. Typically people resort to “thank you in advance” after years of “let me know” fails thinking it will lead to greater accountability. Instead, you just piss everyone off with an implied “do it or die” type of ending regardless of having the authority to require compliance by the recipient. Best strategy to handle “thank you in advance” closings? Ignore the email. Or if you know the person at a friend level, pull them aside and say “really, do you mean to be rude every time you finish an email?” (Side note: yes I realize this is common for Spanish speakers, but it is a cultural difference that doesn’t translate well into the American culture.)
- No pre-excuses – the book Absolute Honesty talks about pre-excuses. People who say repeatedly “I’m not good with technology” over and over so they can pre-excuse themselves to not try to fix their own email problem. What a pre-excuse does, quite well actually, is prevent you from doing the hard stuff and forcing your coworkers or friends to do the hard stuff for you. Very Zsa Zsa Gabor, good work if you can get it, but for most of us we need to stop the pre-excuses and do the hard work and not delegate it to our friends just because they don’t call us out on our pre-excuses. But again, in a dysfunctional organization, pre-excuses are a another great way to avoid actual work.
- No Comic Sans. OK, I can’t prove there is any correlation between comic sans and a decrease in productivity, but I will say nobody will take you seriously if you send emails like a 13 year old into kittens.