The good piece of email

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One habit I learned at Microsoft was the reward for the good piece of email. Many important debates took place on email, and it was common for these discussions to include people at multiple levels of hierarchy; line PMs, middle managers, and VPs might all be exchanging mail back and forth, treating each other mostly as equals. I often found myself in the middle of these debates, usually because something I was responsible for suddenly became very important to the division.

Every so often in these email discussions, I'd make a really strong point in response to something someone else said. I'd carefully word it, revising it over and over to get it just right: simple, strong, and clear. Then I'd send it out. Sometimes my arguments would get torn apart; sometimes I'd be ignored. But on occasion, I'd hit a home run. When I did, I'd often get a private email a few minutes later from a VP or "other person much more important than I" that said only two words: "Good email." The discussion might still rage on, but I'd know that I scored some points in the argument. More important was this: someone took the time to let me know that my points were good, and that I was expressing them in a praiseworthy way.(1)

Smart managers value good email. Managers read so much poorly written email every day, and if they don't take the time to reward those who communicate well, they're unlikely to see more people do it. Little side emails take about 15 seconds to send, and as my story indicates, may mean more to others in your organization than you think.

But praising others is easier than taking responsibility for your own bad email habits. As I mentioned previously, I'm convinced that most people think they write better email than others think they do (and the more senior you are, the harder it might be to get honest feedback about your email etiquette). Because leaders and managers send more email than others, it's critical to sort out what bad habits you have and invest energy in curbing them. Here is some project management-style advice on what good email looks like and what some of the common bad habits are.

• Be concise, be simple, and be direct. Pascal, the mathematician for whom the language is named, once wrote "If I had more time, I'd write a shorter letter." Language, like code, can be optimized, although the goals are different. Instead of optimizing for logical efficiency, you want to optimize for communication efficiency. Unlike code, a grammatically and logically correct three-word message is useless if the recipient can't figure out what the hell it means.(2) Consider who is reading the email and how you would explain or ask whatever it is you need to say if you were talking with him face to face. What details would be needed? Omitted? What concepts can you assume he knows? What metaphors can you use? For important email, step away from it for a few minutes and then reread it, with these questions in mind, before you send it. Or for important mail, or mail going to a large number of people, have one of the people on your team skim it over and give you feedback.

• Offer an action and a deadline. The best kind of email has a specific intention or request that is clearly stated, and, if appropriate, is tied to a reasonable deadline. It should be easy for people reading the email to understand why they are receiving it, how they are impacted by the action, and what they need to do (before the deadline). Assuming you enforce the deadline ("Requests must be in to me by Friday"), you set yourself up for people to be attentive to future actions you communicate through email, which puts you in a position of power.

• Prioritize. Is it really necessary to send that email? The more emails you send, the more work others will have to do to prioritize your requests. How many of the things you're mentioning are important? If you have 10 issues to discuss, break them into two groups and focus on the most important group. Consider if some things can be better handled on the phone, in the next team meeting, or by going door-to-door. If you don't prioritize, expect the recipients to prioritize for youin a way that serves their interests, not yours.

• Don't assume people read anything (especially if it's important to you). It's arrogant to assume that because you sent it, someone has read it. People get tons of email every day, much of it from people just as important as you are. The more important the issue is to you, the more energy you have to expend to make sure people actually see it and are actively doing something about it. The more trust you've built with the people on your team, the more assumptions you can make about how people will respond to things you send.

• Avoid giving a play-by-play. It's rare that anyone needs to know the sequence of events that led to something happening. Avoid writing emails that focus on the contributing actions by different players: "When Sally first designed our build process, she was interested in..." or narrative-driven prose like "The meeting started off fine, with Bob and Steve talking through their slides with great passion and conviction. That is, until " Instead, focus on impact: what happened, how this changes the world, and what we're going to do about it. If you're compelled to include background details, list them below the critical points. The same goes for references to slide decks, web sites, papers, etc. Make it possible for anyone to skim the first two lines and know immediately if it's important enough to them to read any further.

• Sequester FYIs. I've been on teams that persisted in forwarding tons of semi-interesting-but-not-directly-relevant-to-anything email. Some people call these FYIs, or for your information emails. Curiosity and industry awareness are fine habits, but don't let them dominate communication forums used for more tangible work. Set up an email alias or discussion group for "industry trends" or "tech watch," where your team can post the cool things they find. If your email client supports it, ask everyone to set these kinds of emails to low priority, or add "FYI:" to the front of the subject line. Make this stuff easy for people to filter out.

• The telephone is your friend. If ever you don't understand something in an important email you've received, don't respond with an elaborate five-part question. See if you can reach the sender of the email on the phone. Interactive communication is always better at resolving confusion and conflict than email. A 30-second phone conversation is often equivalent to a long series of time-consuming email exchanges. If you do get the sender on the phone and resolve the issue, you can then share your clarified understanding in an email sent to everyone: odds are good that if you were confused, so were others. Telephones (or a walk down the hallway) are the great expediters of group email communication. (3)

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