One of the benefits of working for Online is that every single Onliner is empowered and encouraged to generate ideas, and/or affect positive change in our organization wherever and whenever they feel inspired to do so. One of the things I’ve been trying to impact is around this whole [air quote]email[end air quote] thing. As a result, I’ve been doing this inbox zero training thing for a while now internally (and for clients), but it’s been an absolute rush to have the opportunity to also do it in a more public / recognized way.
Having eaten, breathed, and slept all kinds of email problems and questions for the last little while has given me a pretty decent perspective on some of the biggest problems plaguing most people. It’s also given me a decent perspective into some of the things we inflict upon ourselves as a result of our own bad habits! Writing my last post got me thinking back over the years about some these habits that are really entrenched in the business / tech world. It’s funny, you’d think for as nerdy as most of us are these days you’d think we’d have a better grip on some of the tools we use with on a daily basis. When it comes to email, it feels even more ridiculous considering we use it as frequently as hourly or more. In order to do my (very small) part to assist in breaking some of our bad email habits, let’s talk about the few top contenders for worst email faux-pas!
To != CC
We all let ourselves slide now and again when it comes to email etiquette, but we gotta reel it back in when it comes to abusing the To and CC fields in our editor of choice. How often do we all get emails that are directly asking us a question or requesting a response, but our names are squarely placed in the CC field? How many times have people emailed you back saying… “Hey, why didn’t you respond to my message?” when you weren’t included in the To line at all? Have you ever wondered who was supposed to take point on a particular action because all the recipients were put in the To field?We have to get back on the wagon when it comes to indicating who the message is TO, and who is simply being copied (CC’d – Carbon Copy’d).
Calendar Responses … Send ’em
Every time I’m booking a room or ordering food I have that moment where I think to myself:
Aaron, you’re ordering food, but can you really count on the number of people coming that responded to the invite?
After many instances of trial and error I’ve learned the answer is unequivocally “No, I can’t”, but I still hold on to the foolish belief that I should be able to! So lets all just agree that from now on we will all accept meetings and “send a response NOW” when prompted to do so from our mail client of choice. Accepting the meeting and failing to do so will result in the organizer receiving NO indication of whether or not you’re coming. If you’re using iCal or Outlook or anything else, take a second and make sure that replies are turned on right now… you might just save someone a headache or two down the road.
One at a Time … Please!
So often, there are times when I get a message from someone and they’ll say something like:
Aaron, can you please check problem a, b, or c?
Also, how was your weekend? Mine was great! I had a blast doing yadda yadda yadda
So when I send back my reply, do I include my weekend plans in the email first? Last? What happens when I go on and on about my amazing (or not so amazing) weekend and my response to the A, B, C question gets lost in the shuffle? Keep It Simple Stupid has never been more important than right here; when responding to messages like this put each of your answers in a separate email.
Save Your Questions for the End
We all work on projects of varying complexity. Sometimes we can describe the whole thing in a 1-pager. Sometimes we’re talking about multi-hundred-page documents containing use cases, business workflows, process diagrams, etc. Regardless of the problem at hand, leverage this technique to make sure your recipients are following your train of thought all the way through to the end (which really should be where your point resides, no?).
When you’re describing something, looking for information, requesting confirmation, or need some kind of validation, provide your context in the body of the email and then place all your questions at the bottom. There is nothing more challenging (to me) than having to sift through a (sometimes non-HTML / un-formatted) wall of text to try and extract the questions being asked of me by the sender. Placing your questions at the end lets the reader focus on what your saying until you’ve provided enough relevant context. Armed with a (presumably) better understanding of your situation, they can then read through your itemized set of questions or bullets and provide a clear response to each of them. This also keeps the Q&A in a tight little package at the bottom of your email that’s easier to extract at a later time if ever you think its necessary (for forwards, reports, documentation, etc.)
Focusing on changing any one of these is going to be a win for you in terms of keeping your communications clear, concise, and in some cases, respectful (I’m looking at you unsent Calendar Invites). David Allen’s team has a great article up here on their email best practices (I recommend checking it out). If you don’t know who David Allen is, he wrote this little ditty a while ago (a few people have read it … and when I say a few … I mean literally millions). Lastly, if you’re interested in reading more about email strategies in general, check out this Harvard Business Review article from last week (featuring IB0 – of course :)). Lastly, thanks to Elena from Cross Border Communications for sharing the link w/ me.
Let me know what email habits you have tried to break and can’t or which ones get you most heated in the comments below.