Effective e-mail communication

 

Most people use e-mail ineffectively. Research I just made up shows that ineffective e-mail usages costs the average person 14,000 hours and $6 billion per year. Thankfully, I know a few tips and tricks which help save me from such atrocity. Here they are, in no particular order…

1. Number your points

If you have several points to make in an e-mail, number them. This helps you be precise and allows the responder to address each point individually. If you are the responder, and the other person didn’t number the points they made in their initial e-mail, go ahead and number them yourself as you respond. Resist the urge to use Roman numerals.

2. Cut out the soft questions

If you must use niceties, don’t use them as questions. “How are you?” is fine if you really want to know how the other person is, but more often than not it’s just used as a formality, and the last thing you want is the other person to come back with a three paragraph response to that throwaway query. “I hope you’re well,” is a better way to go.

3. If… then…

I picked this tip up from The 4-Hour Workweek. Many questions asked by e-mail simply lead to more questions and therefore more back-and-forth, but often you can anticipate what the follow-ups will be and answer them before they’re even asked. For example, if you’re planning a nighttime ninja expedition with a friend and you’re not sure if he has his own nunchucks, you could e-mail and ask “Do you have nunchucks?” and wait for him to get back to you. Or you could take the initiative and send something like this in your first message:

“Do you have nunchucks? If you do, bring them along. If not, I have some throwing stars you can borrow instead.”

Now your ninja buddy doesn’t have to respond at all.

4. Empathize

Before you send an e-mail, always read back over the message and try to interpret it as the recipient would. What questions do you envision them having? Are there any parts that are likely to confuse them? Revise and elaborate as necessary.

5. Offer solutions instead of asking questions

If you know what the problem is, offer a solution or two instead of asking “What now?” Just be sure to offer solutions that you’re in favor of. There’s always a good chance that the other person won’t be in the mood for thinking and so they’ll get on board with whatever you propose.

6. Check e-mail just once or twice a day

My least productive days are those when I start out checking e-mail. Before you know it, I’m chasing after “urgent” requests, at the expense of important work. I’ve gotten into the habit though of not checking e-mail until after 10am, and those first couple of hours in the morning are easily my most productive and effective because of that.

It’s also important to let people know that you only check it once or twice a day. That way they are more likely to try to solve the problem themselves before e-mailing you about it, or they might solve it after e-mailing you and follow up with a “nevermind” before you even see the first message.

Checking e-mail just once or twice a day also results in batch processing. You can zip through all your unread e-mails in a few minutes, separate the important from the unimportant, then take effective action. Only when you check e-mail every two minutes does every message seem urgent and important, but really most are neither.

7. Keep it brief

This may sound contradictory to some of the other points above, but it’s important to keep your e-mails brief. You want to cover all the bases and be as clear as possible, yes, but you also don’t want to spend all day writing. After all, the more you write, the longer the response is likely to be.

As such, set yourself a sentence limit for e-mail and try to stick to that. Include a link to five.sentenc.es in your e-mail signature if you like. Keep in mind that a one-word response will often do for a confirmation; the length of your reply does not have to match the length of the original message.

8. Don’t reply to every e-mail

Nobody says you have to. Many of the e-mails we receive do not warrant a response. Know that nothing bad will happen if you let a few forgettable messages slip through the cracks.

9. Illustrate your point

If your e-mail references a certain webpage, include a link or a screenshot. Don’t make the other person guess or go scouring the web to see what you’re talking about. That’s where the bulk of those 14,000 hours are lost.

Example

Now, let’s put the tips above into practice. Here’s a fake real e-mail that I found lying around. The names have been changed for my own amusement. I believe many people still send messages like this, not realizing how much better the communication could be.

Hey Seamus,

How are you? I hope the summer is treating you well. I’ve been extremely busy here but I know I shouldn’t complain. How’s business on your end?

More to the point, I was just playing around with the new version of the website and I have a few questions and comments. I was wondering if we can change the background color? I hope it’s not too late. I’m just not a big fan of that orange. And what about the headline text? I’m also not sure if I like the way things are ordered in the sidebar. I think we should revise. Maybe we could add something different at the top, make it stand out a little more. Do you have any suggestions?

There’s also the page I talked to you about on the phone last week. Have you been able to work on that?

I think that’s everything. Call me if you have any questions. I think we’ll be close to finished once we get these few things straightened out. Thanks for all your help.

- Finbar

The above e-mail is terrible. Finbar rambles on, throws out questions as he thinks of them and is very vague and uncertain on several points. Sure, he comes off sounding like a nice guy, but he’s making Seamus’s job much more difficult and time-intensive than it has to be.

Here’s a revised version of the e-mail showing how Finbar could have communicated more effectively. The word count is about the same and it wouldn’t have taken him any longer to write.

Hey Seamus,

A few things regarding the new site. I think we’ll be done once we have these straightened out.

1) I’m not satisfied with the orange background. Is it too late to change it? If not, let’s try yellow instead, the same shade they use in the background of this site.

2) I also want to change the color of the headlines in the main content area. Right now they’re black. Let’s try a dark blue/navy. Send me screenshots of three different shades and I’ll pick one.

3) Reorder the blocks of content in the sidebar like so: About, Subscribe, Calendar, Latest Posts, Ad Space.

4) Related to the above, I want the About block to stand out more in the sidebar. Please cut out the attached picture of me and add it alongside the text (right aligned). The image should be clickable and link to the full About page. If you think this will look terrible, please advise of an alternative way to emphasize the About block.

5) Have you been able to work on the Contact page like we talked about last week? Please send an update.

Let me know if you have any questions/comments. Thanks for all your help.

- Finbar

With this revised version of the message, Seamus should be able to get right to work. Finbar has eliminated the need for lots of back-and-forth, thanks to the clarity and precision of his message. Good man, Finbar. Have a biscuit.

Try it yourself

Keep these few tips in mind next time you’re doing business via e-mail. It won’t be long before you see them paying off.

If you have any additional tips that have worked well for you, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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  1. Absolutely. If you’re e-mailing a group of people, you should always be clear about who each part of your message is directed at. Assigning tasks to a group as a whole and nobody in particular is a good way to get nothing done, since nobody will feel accountable, assuming someone else will handle it.

    Also, I usually bold people’s names when I’m e-mailing a group like that so everyone can scan through and easily find the specific parts that apply to them.

  2. Rules of effective communication are definitely worth reading.
    By the way, do you think whether these rules should also be applied to blog comments (especially 5-sentences rule) or not?
    If not – what is wrong to treat e-mail as a blog comment falling under less rules?

  3. I hadn’t really thought about that, Pavel. Looking through the list though, I think most of the points can be easily applied to comments. I usually try to keep my comments brief.

  4. I’d also like to suggest that when responding, make sure you understood the question (if there was one) in the first place.

    Too often I find that questions are left unanswered, or overlooked, requiring another email.