Let’s face it: when you get a hundred e-mails a day, you can count ninety-nine of them as poorly written. How they are poorly written can start at the subject line and end with the five thousand word postscript where everything in the e-mail is confidential and if you received it in error you need to rip the electrons right off your computer screen so you are not e-mail informed of world-changing events in the Company. I always love the logic that you, the erroneous receiver of someone else’s e-mail, is the person who is at fault for someone else’s error and, oh by the way, you are also responsible for cleaning it up. But I digress.
There is a secret to effective e-mails and hardly anyone uses it. Besides ensuring your e-mails show your perception in an organization, you can start getting the responses you need by following this simple tip: start your e-mail with what you want the person to do with it.
Do you want to use the e-mail as a way to inform, but not take action? Then start your e-mail with “FYI only: no action required.” Think of the reader now going, “Oh, read and delete or store.”
Do you want a decision made? Then start your e-mail with “Action required: Approve (or not) X.” The reader then knows you want a decision and the rest of the e-mail is about your view on that decision.
The use of this singular tip provides great benefits:
Remove e-mail ambiguity
What is the first thing you have to do when you open an e-mail? Figure out what the e-mail means and your part in what is in the e-mail. And since most e-mails are pretty poorly written, you can spend a great deal of time just figuring out your role in the e-mail.
Take the ambiguity away — tell the reader up front what it is you want them to do with the e-mail.
Assign proper accountability
Don’t you love the e-mails with the three hundred person distribution list? Now, if you were one of the three hundred people on the list, would you think you’d have any responsibility to do anything from that e-mail outside of reading it and deleting it? Probably not.
If you are sending an e-mail to a group, call out what your needs from the e-mail (“Approve – or not – X”) and who is to do what you want from the group. When Mary and Joe get called out in the first sentence that they get to approve or not, it is very clear who is responsible. And, if it is incorrect that Mary and Joe get to make the approval, someone will distinctly see they are not part of the process and can correct it.
People will follow your reasoning
The greatest communication advice ever given to me by a manager was that the higher in the organization you go, the greater the need to state up front what you are requesting. This allows the manager to know the request and spend time following your logic — and not trying to figure out what you are going to want at the end.
Applied to e-mail, if you have a five paragraph e-mail (about the longest you can do…), the person reading it will try to figure out what you want as they are reading it. Tell the person up front what you want and the person reading the e-mail will then follow your logic.
It’s not e-mail etiquette, it is e-mail effectiveness
Most people write about e-mail etiquette and I understand why. Effectiveness, however, is a higher standard to meet. If you want to improve your personal brand with those you e-mail — and be much more effective in how you spend your time — then you need to state the purpose of the e-mail up front. It’s one of the ways you become the Cubicle Warrior.
Okay, here’s what I want you to do: open up your e-mail. Count how many unread messages you have. Then open each one up and count how many paragraphs it takes before you figure out what the person is asking you to do in the e-mail. Report back here in the comments and tell us what you find. Hilarity will ensue — but the point will also be made: Ask for what you want up front.