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Successful Communication Online - EMail

Messaging technologies have been in use within major organizations for decades. It’s amazing to me that most of us still don’t discern the disconnects happening across organizations as digital natives (i.e., millennials) and digital adapters (i.e., Gen X and Boomers) utilize these technologies in vastly different ways.

These differences in usage, communication behavior, and in context can lead to a lot of confusion, misunderstandings, or even anger. Luckily, there are simple things you can do to make communication technologies work better for you and your team. This is the first of a series on how to improve your use of communication technologies to create clarity, reduce stress, and increase productivity.

This first quick article is about that old, proven, creaky technology called Email. I know, Millennials and GenZ, I’ve already lost you. Yet, like it or not, Email is pervasive and not going anywhere, so you need to know how to master it. Surprisingly, I've found that it's the younger generations that struggle most with EMail, because they use it less, and began using it long after they learned different communications behaviors in instant messaging platforms. Here are seven quick ways to make Email work for you:

1. The subject line

The subject line makes or breaks your Email. Make it uninteresting, and it goes into the bit bucket, never to be seen again. The subject line sets the tone for the Email and sets its urgency. Make it clear, concise, and add a response date if that’s important. If you’re struggling with this, sending an IM might be a better option.

2. Length

If your Email is longer than a paragraph and a half, pick up the phone or set up a meeting. ‘Aint nobody got time for that. If it’s a long explanation or other technical documentation, put that in a document and attach it to your Email. Don’t put it in the body.

Ok, if you just must send that long missive, create an executive summary at the top, label it as such, then put headers for each section, to make the Email more scannable and readable. Better yet, use bullet points.

You should spend time getting your email right, but not in writing more. With EMail, less is usually more.

3. Timing

The best personal time management practices tell you to set up some focus time and to respond to Emails in batches. Sending a reply that says, “Got it, I’ll get back to you tomorrow” is way better than just letting the sender stew in silence. But, also, don’t send “read receipts” to others. That is communicating that you don’t respect the other person’s time management or prioritization. It’s also useless -- just because I opened the Email and you got a read receipt doesn’t actually mean I read it, much less understood it or took action on it.

4. Closing

Don’t just end an Email. Put something in that nicely closes the message, within the formality of your organization’s culture. Abruptly ending a message does not signal clarity, or that you care. Pick something that works for you. Something like “Thanks, talk soon.” or "Looking forward to your reply," is much better.

5. Signature

Your Email signature should be short, informative, and clear. Your name, title, company name, and phone number (if appropriate), are petty much all you need. Long signatures with messages like “Please don’t print this Email” or “Best Places to Work 2021! Read the article!” or adding inspirational quotes is like getting an ad shoved in your face. It also takes up most of the screen if you're trying to read the EMail on a mobile phone, making it hard to read the actual message you were trying to send in the first place.

Marketing teams love to do this, and most of us hate it, so just stop.

6. Context

Don’t send an Email like “Please call me.” It’s needlessly stress-inducing, distracting, and confusing. Provide context, like “Please call me about Project X. I have an important client request.” It’s also extremely helpful to set your expectations about the priority and requested response time. More like “Call me before Wednesday when convenient. I have important feedback from the client.”

Communicate expectations. Don’t be afraid to say “I need the Brown report by tomorrow at 3pm,” but also give the recipient space by encouraging communication – “if you can’t make that deadline, please let me know as soon as possible.”

Know your audience. Don't assume everyone shares the same perspective or context. For example, younger staff may include emojis in messages that older staff may miss the meaning of, or find too casual. Younger staff may misinterpret short, curt messages from older staff that are trying to save time as angry, rude, or standoffish.

7. Reply chains

We’ve all been in seemingly endless reply chains that go on and on. Try to stop them after three or four iterations and set up a real-time discussion. The chances of a long chain of Email coming to a useful solution or conclusion in a timely manner (or, really, at all) are close to zero. The solution, which you’ll see is a trend across communication technologies, is to move the discussion to a different platform more appropriate to the context of the communication, i.e., a meeting, a video conference, or perhaps instant messaging.

Summing it up:

Of the seven areas, I’d say the most important is context. In many organizations there are different languages and different cultural communication norms that you need to keep in mind when sending Emails. This is exponentially increased when you have individuals who may use English as their second language. I’ve even found major differences in approach and styles in EMail between the east coast, south, and west coasts of the US.

Don't forget all the communication complexity that can be layered on top of this when cultural differences are involved, even between organizations within the same country. Some organizations are matrix, some are hierarchical, with different norms of who should be cc'd on Emails, how soon Email responses should take, or even how formal or informal messages should be. Be open to discussing communications expectations with others so that you can get it right. Your thoughtfulness and questions about unspoken context rules will usually be appreciated. Some organizations have even created EMail usage guidebooks for this reason.

Adding context to messages, with a special focus on proof-reading your Emails for clarity, not just spelling, will provide you with the best outcome for your communications.

Next time, I’ll jump into some tips for instant messaging on platforms like Slack, Google Hangouts, and Teams.

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