June 26, 2012
If you lose readership of your email, your influence wanes at work. If you misuse it enough, you'll turn partners into detractors. If you mismanage it as a resource, you'll force everyone to do more work and they'll despise you for it. To quote TechStars grad and Vanilla founder Mark Sullivan, "Don't suck at email."
I'm surprised, though, that few companes teach email effectiveness. That's why so many people I've worked with suck at email. It's not something we should leave to users to figure out (using our company name in their email address!?). It can be your Colt 45 tool to get things done, or your Achille's Heel. Your choice.
Here are five ways not to stink at email:
1. Kill your inbox every Friday. Letting your Inbox get full of once-read but not-answered emails stresses you out. It also sends a signal to your bizmates that you don't have your act together OR you are way over committed. Don't think that an auto-responder like "I'm so busy, sorry if I don't reply" will cut the mustard. It comes across as showboating, unless you are a mega-star that's getting pummled by fan mail.
2. Review before you click Send. In most email situations, we write, send, then review. That's the ready-fire-aim approach to communications. Take a few seconds to read what you just wrote, and do so from the reader POV. Remember, this is work and you are trying to get stuff done. If you are mad, then really reread what you are writing. Consider picking up the phone instead, so you can convey your intentions instead of raw emotions.
3. Craft effective subject lines. What if the New York Times sucked at writing headlines for their stories? What if their headlines read, "RE: The Economy"? Today, to be effective at email, we need to use subject lines like publishers use headlines. Most of your email recipients are on-the-go, so your subject line is your advertisement for their attention. If you are requesting some specific action, say it in the subject line. If you are updating on the topic, summarize the development in a half a tweet's worth of words.
4. Don't reply to all unless you have to. More email from you equals more reason to ignore you in our high noise to signal life. In the study I did on email usage for EmailAtoZ, only 12% of reply to all occurances were necessary. The others were pure RE:RE:RE: conversations that invovled everyone in the original note. More here.
5. Write email during professional hours. Sipping and sending can be as dangerous as drinking and dialing/driving. When you write all your emails on a plane, at 10pm with five glasses of red wine in you, you suck at email. When you setup your laptop on a coffee table on a Sunday, and plow through 100 emails while watching the game, your notes don't make much sense and you likely display a tone of resentment. Make your meetings shorter, and preserve work week time to kill your Inbox. If Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson can do it, you can to. And he's awesome on email.