Why Do We Still Do Email So Badly? (Part 1)

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Email is ubiquitous. Email is still our main method of communication at work. And email continues to be a major thorn in our sides.

But why?

Well, part of the reason is because there is just so much of it and part of it is because it is not done properly.

Quick survey:

  • How many of you get more than 40 or more work emails each day?
  • How many emails do you read two or three or more times because they are confusing?
  • How many emails do you not read because they are just too long?
  • How many think your colleagues send more email than is necessary?

If you’re like most folks, you find yourself raising your hand to every one of these questions. It’s rather depressing. And it’s rather confusing as to why we continue to use email as a form of communication when we clearly are not doing it right.

Over the past few years we have seen other technology tools (software) come along that claim to free us of the dreaded barrage of email. Tools like Instant Messenger, Slack, Yammer, etc. have come to save us from having to suffer with bad email, but those tools just add another layer of reading material and do not replace email as intended. Email persists.

Email is here to stay. So deal with it. And start doing email right.

Here are a few ideas that really work to reduce communication confusion and consumption.

To reduce confusion, try the following:

Clear: Always write in the active voice. What does that mean? It means the subject acts upon the verb. (e.g. Tom submitted the report on time.) Active voice has a strong, direct, and clear tone. In contrast, the passive voice is when the subject is acted upon by the verb. (e.g. The report was submitted on time by Tom.) This passive voice construction is 25% longer and takes longer to comprehend carefully.

Active voice creates clarity and certainty for the reader. Use active voice whenever possible.

Concise: Always try to use the fewest words possible. Short sentences are easy to read and easy to write. A good way to keep sentences short is to use bullet points. Bullet points force you to use fewer words and keep the message relevant to one topic per line. Short messages get read much more quickly and much more often than long, rambling novels of incoherent thoughts and topics. Want your message to get read? Keep it short.

Cogent: This is a fancy word for relevant. (I normally wouldn’t use this word, but it works well with the other “C” words before it – Clear and Concise.) Keep your messages relevant and to the point. This will keep your reader focused and “in touch” with what you are trying to convey. Try to keep messages to one single topic per message. If you have other topics you need to bring up, do so in another email message. Adding in multiple subjects creates confusion and increases the chances that your reader will miss some important points in your message.

Nothing is worse than having to repeat yourself because you were not heard or understood.

To reduce consumption, try these techniques:

Send less email: One of the best ways to reduce the amount of email you receive is to reduce the amount of email you send. Not every email requires a reply. In fact, most probably don’t.

Include only necessary recipients: Think about your audience before sending your message. Send only to those who really need to be in on this message. Don’t send to everyone in the department unless it affects everyone in the department. If you feel you want to send a message to the whole group, keep the key recipients in the “To:” line and put everyone else in the “Cc:” line. This lets everyone know if they are required to read or just included for clarity’s sake.

Don’t Reply All: Please do everyone a favor and avoid the “Reply All” button at all costs. This button generates an exponential amount of extra messaging that also creates resentment and frustration among the group.

Save your sanity and practice social distancing from Reply All.

Use the phone: More email messages have been written, sent, read, and re-read because of confusion in the message itself. If you find yourself reading a message over and over to make sense (or you’re writing multiple paragraphs trying to explain something), just pick up the phone and hash is out verbally. This will save many minutes of frustration and scrutiny, because you will now have the added benefits of tone and realtime explanation.

Using these concepts and techniques will help you get your email under control. And if you would like to read more about other email productivity ideas, read my post on Taming Your Inbox.

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In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. What are your favorite email tips, tricks, and techniques? Tell us in the comments below.

Your Mindful Moment:

Want people to read your message? Keep it clear, concise, and cogent.

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