E-mail: How not to get burnedby Aaron Nathans on Apr. 30, 2007, under Edge
It pays to spend a little time thinking about an e-mail before you send it. Paying more attention to what you write can make your messages more effective and guard against workplace catastrophes.
There are numerous ways to make e-mails stronger and more likely to be read faster, said Mike Song, co-author of the book, “The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your E-Mail Before it Manages You.” The hamster, he said, refers to people spending a lot of time spinning their wheels.
The average employee spends 40 percent of his day on e-mail, Song said. That’s costing companies $300 billion a year in lost productivity, he said.
“Nobody’s reading them, they’re just scanning them. At best, they’re scanning them quickly,” said Song, whose Cohesive Knowledge Solutions is based in Guilford, Conn. “To get your message recognized, read and acted upon, strengthen the subject, sculpt the body.”
The way to get fewer e-mails is to send fewer e-mails, Song said. Cut down on your use of the “cc” and “reply to all” functions, as well as group distribution lists, he said.
A better e-mail starts with a better subject line, he said. Instead of writing “Meeting,” Song suggests being more specific, like “Sales team meeting from April 3rd.”
If you’re confirming a meeting, write back in the subject line, “Confirmed.” And when you’re sending information the recipient requested, use the word “Delivery” before describing what you’re sending.
Song believes that business e-mails ought to have a structure, which he calls “ABC.”
• A stands for “action summary.” In the first line should be the “summary point,” he said. It should leave no room for guesswork, he said. An example might be: “Action: Please submit business plan by 5 p.m. on April 3rd.” It’s important to list a deadline or time element, he said.
• B stands for “background.” This second part should be a series of bullet points, with information the recipient needs to know, he said. This avoids a “wall of words” that no one will want to read, or an e-mail that, conversely, doesn’t provide enough detail, he said.
• And C stands for “close.” This final portion should speak to the next steps that need to be taken, or perhaps a personal message to lighten the e-mail, he said. Finish it with an auto signature with contact information, he said.
There are times when using e-mail is inappropriate, Song said. In general, be careful what you put in writing, especially if the subject matter is sensitive.
“E-mail is what people are using against us,” Song said, noting that in trials and political scandals, e-mails are becoming evidence.
It’s good to avoid writing business e-mails that include anger or emotion, he said. People can lose out on a promotion two years later because of an intemperate e-mail, he said.
“An e-mail is forever,” Song said.
Communication is usually better in person or on the telephone, he said: “Two-way conversations are more robust.”
A long pause that might come up in conversation wouldn’t be reflected in an e-mail, where the recipient has more time to formulate a response, he said. “They’re missing out on nonverbal cues. That’s where a lot of leaders are falling short.”
Be prepared for anyone to see a message you send, Song said.
“Picture it on the front page of the (news) paper, and ask yourself this question: How would I feel about that?” Song said. “You have to look at the complexity, the emotional content, the legality of your message. You have to assume it’s going to slip out.”
Make your e-mails sound active
Mike Song, CEO of Cohesive Knowledge Solutions, suggests using one of five action words when appropriate to help recipients sort through their e-mail. They can be used either in the subject line, or in the first line of the e-mail:
• “Action,” for something that you need in a time-sensitive manner.
• “Info,” for when you’re providing information that requires no action on the recipient’s part.
• “Request,” for when you need something but need to show more politeness or deference.
• “Delivery,” when you’re sending information the recipient requested.
• “Confirmed,” when you’re agreeing to a request.
Such a first line would look like this: “Confirmed: I will be at the marketing meeting May 5th, and yes, I’ll bring the doughnuts.”