If there is any single topic that elicits frustration amongst participants, it’s email. This became such a hot topic, that I now run an entire course entitled, Email vs. You. And the Winner is …?”
Email noise is an ever-increasing problem, and the statistics are frightening. The first ever email was sent back in 1971 (who’d have thought it was so old)! Even by 1998 the entire email traffic worldwide came to just over 3 1/2 billion for the entire year. But by the end of 2010, there was an estimated 247 billion emails sent per day. I know, many of them feel to be sent within your organisation. However bad you think the problem is now, it is set to be 507 billion emails per day by 2013.
So if we don’t get a handle on this communication tool now, there is no chance we will survive email in the next few years. I generally find that the organisations I work with have gone to a lot of effort to install comprehensive infrastructures, servers, networks to cope with the technical load, but then haven’t taught the staff how to use it. I don’t mean how to hit “send and receive”, but rather the nuances of this unique medium. It can be a great tool, but used in the wrong way, it can create a lot of stress.
It’s easy for me to criticise email, and indeed many of us remember work and life before email.
However, most of us would struggle to envisage life without it now.
So here’s an exercise … draw a quick mind map and list the facets of email; split it into positive and negative features. Let’s see if you have the common themes that arise at the seminars.
Some of the features of email can appear as both positive and negative items.
- Able to contact many people at once
- A record of what was said.
A recent survey of 1,000 employees in an organisation showed four common themes that irritated staff.
- Emails with long rambling messages, where you get to the end wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do with it.
- Emails with unclear or no subject lines
- Emails which had half the organisation in the “to” list … and the other half in the “cc” box.
- Emails that shouldn’t have been emails in the first place.
So let’s see if we can help. We’ll cover two areas briefly, which are extracts from the “Email vs. You” course. Firstly, we’ll demonstrate how to write more effective emails and secondly how to process your email.
Your initial thought might be that this will benefit others but not you directly.
However if your emails are clearly written, experience shows that it will reduce your email volume, saving you time in processing and replying to unnecessary emails.
An acronym that was coined by Sally McGhee and is promoted by Microsoft is P.A.S.S.
Let’s look at each one individually. If you can think of an actual email that you need to write as we take you through these stages, it will be beneficial.
Purpose – this stage is often forgotten, but before writing any email the first thing you should do is define your purpose. What is the objective, what do you want to get from this email. If you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish from sending this message, you can be pretty sure your recipient won’t either. Be clear on this before beginning to compose the message.
Action – liked to “purpose” but make sure you know what action you want the recipient to take when they receive the message. Is this a task you want them to undertake, do you want them to respond, is it just for information purposes only? Are there any deadlines for this action to be completed? Now you can write the body of the message.
Supporting – having written the message, make sure your email is comprehensive and provides all the information necessary for the recipient to take the action you’ve identified in the previous stage. Is there a phone number they need, do you need to attach a document, who should they contact? To do this, re-read the message back to yourself from the eyes of the recipient and ensure that it will support them to act on your message.
Subject – usually the first thing we complete when writing an email is the subject line. We quickly decide roughly what the message is going to be about, fill in the subject line and then write the body. However, it’s easier to define the subject after you’ve written the message, because we can now ensure that the subject line, clarifies or accurately summarises the content of the message. If all in your team and better still organization ensured that subject lines reflect the content, we can reduce stress all round.
Recipients – Although not part of the acronym, a final element in writing effective email, is to ensure we only send it to the appropriate people. So who should go in the “to” box? Only those who have an action to take from the email. So think about the “A” of P.A.S.S., if a person doesn’t have an action, don’t put them in the “to” box of the recipient list.
Who should go in the “cc” box? The answer to this question is anyone who does not have a direct action to take, but for whom the email still have relevance. To define it little more accurately, it is “anyone who does not have an action to take, but where the email contains a meaningful objective to them”. And how do we know what a meaningful objective is? This is right back to the Depths of Perspective elements of the course under the “Roles” section.
This is why we recommend that your roles should be clearly defined, because if they aren’t, how do you know what your meaningful objectives are, and how will anyone else know.
Finally, the use of the “bcc” box. This is usually a contentious issue, and I am surprised sometimes by the level of anger it elicits. The most common misuse of the blind carbon copy function, is as some describe “sneaky”. You are involved in an electronic argument and rant, so you “bcc” your manager or their manager so they too can witness the other person’s appalling behavior.
This can often be counter-productive and doesn’t help to engender trust in long term relationships. In some organisations, we are asked at this point to disseminate a corporate policy and often it includes that the “bcc” box should not be used as we want to encourage openness.
There are a small number of legitimate uses, and the key one is where you need to protect the anonymity of the recipients. This might typically come into play when you are communicating with a number of external parties and each should not see another’s contact details.
Finally, having defined the purpose, clarified the action required, written the message, summarized it in the subject line and carefully addressed the message, just before you hit the send button, ask one final question … “should this really be an email?” It might well be that the answer is yes, but occasionally you re-read it to yourself and decide it would be better as a face to face conversation or a telephone call. I’ve seen a number of careers lost by sending inappropriate emails, and this final check should filter out this problem.
The other key element to effective email management is processing our email and the first and most important point we make is that unless your job demands it, you will be better to switch off email notifications.
You know the little pop up message that appears at the bottom right of the screen and is possibly accompanied by a “ping” sound. You see I don’t care how important that report is that you are working on, when you hear that noise, you will go and check the message – even though it’s from HQ telling us that someone has dropped a glove in the car park (and we work in an office 15 miles away!)
It’s nearly always on by default, and equally possible to turn it off. Depending on your email software, you will go through a different set of steps and a quick search on Google will give you the answer.
If we can understand the concept of switching off the ping messages, it might be that we can actually switch our email client off altogether and only open it at certain times of the day. To do this however, needs our team to agree a response time protocol. We often hear of people sending an email and then calling the recipient on the phone twenty minutes later to ask if they got the message because they haven’t heard from them.
If a request needs a quick response, maybe email is the right medium. I think a good response time is 24 hours, but you can set one that is appropriate to your organization and industry.
Once we have this in our mind, we are now relieving a lot of the stress that comes from email, and can set ourselves a regular time for processing email. Processing email is different to checking email. It’s true most of do some type of emergency scanning, but if we understand that processing requires a chunk of time this will help us apply the “Clarify” phase of the “Workflow” section of the course to our email.
A key to effective processing, is to make the decision about an email the first time we open it. “What does this mean?”, “What’s the next action?” and “What’s the verb that goes with this email?” are really useful questions. Don’t open an email, scan through it, sigh, and close it back again to come back to later. Make the decision the first time you open the message. You don’t necessarily have to “do” the email, but at least decide what it is that needs to be done.
So in terms of verbs, is this an email you are going to have to write, a phone call you need to make, a visit you will have to do, an agenda item to discuss at a meeting, something to buy. The workflow chart should help with this.
We advise liberating the task out of email so that the message can be discarded, archived or deleted. Once you have created a task or meeting, and put it into your electronic diary, paper planner, toodledo or other system as we discussed earlier in the course, the message itself is unimportant.
Once we get into this habit, we can become really slick at deleting or archiving old messages and getting our inbox empty. This is based on an approach described by Merlin Mann as Inbox Zero. There is no better feeling at the end of the day or week to have no emails in your inbox because you have processed them all. There may be actions still left to do, but we have parked them in the appropriate place, rather than leaving them in our inbox.
When I raise the idea of having no emails in your inbox, I’ve seen people breathing into paper bags to stop themselves hyperventilating. However, it’s not as hard as you might think, and it only has to be done once. To do this quickly, go through this three stage process:
1) Sort your emails by receive date (they probably already are as that’s the default for most clients). Now decide the shelf life of your email. Is it 3 months, 6 months, 3 weeks? In other words, if it’s older than that, you probably don’t need it.
Once you’ve decided that, drag anything older to an archive. (The policy to setting up an “archive” varies dramatically and you will need to check with your administrator the best approach.)
So if you started with 1,000 emails in your inbox, this might have reduced it to 500.
2) Now sort emails by the sender and go through your inbox grabbing entire groups of emails that you no longer need. These might be “inbox full” messages, emails from people who no longer work for the organization or messages from “Jane” at head office.
Drag these over to your archive. You have now reduced your inbox from 500 down to 100.
3) Process the rest. I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about that, other than to re-iterate that you need to go through each one asking “what’s the next action?”
However, once you have your inbox back to nothing, you will feel a sense of relief and that you are once again in charge of your email rather than it running you.
So make a commitment with yourself to write effective emails, only send them to people who should receive them, have set processing time and to get your inbox to zero. It’s easier than you might imagine, and a game changer in terms of our email.