Email. People hate it. Yet people prefer it because it’s what they know.
After a quick Google search of email as an internal communications tool, I found lots of articles about how it should be ditched as a way to engage employees. But upon further reading those same articles, I found the biggest reason they give to get rid of them was because they sucked. People are just generally bad at emails.
It’s What We Use
I also came across a study by SaneBox (an email organization SaaS), that found 62% of emails received by employees aren’t important. That’s a lot of wasted communication.
Here’s the thing about email though, it’s what people are comfortable with. It’s how they are already connected within most organizations and they aren’t interested in learning something new. For example, in a recent internal survey at the organization I work for, email was rated “most preferred”.
A 2019 internal communications survey from Ragan Communications and PoliteMail discovered 92% of organizations use email, with 68% of those respondents stating it’s the one they use the most.
So instead of abandoning email for something shiny and new, it might be smarter to get better at what you already do. Email is a form of communication, and as with any communication, it’s two-way. Not only what you send but how it’s received and understood. There are at least two people included in any email correspondence and they all must be considered to be effective.
That’s the approach I’ve taken with some of recommendations… consider your audience.
- Spell everyone’s name right – if you’re not sure, look at their email signature, Google it or look in your organization’s directory. As Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” So by getting it wrong, you’re demonstrating a lack of consideration and respect, even if that’s not what you’ve intended.
- Respond when someone sends you an email that requires action (including a decision) – Sure you’re busy. We all are. And by not responding to someone’s email, you’re implying your busy is more important than someone else’s busy. No one should ever be made to feel that way. Even if you can’t get to the email right now, provide a response of acknowledgement and then follow up. Read receipts were created for bad communicators.
- Put any request or proposal at the top of email – don’t bury the lead. To save time, make sure there is no question as to what you need help with and put it in the subject line and near the top of the email. People generally want to help those that need it but everyone is too busy to have to read 17 paragraphs of context to get to the request. If the respondent has questions, they’ll ask in follow up.
- Summarize the issue when sharing an email chain – much like the previous point on burying the lead, the same could be send by just forwarding an email chain for people to read to find the point of the email. You know what you want, and you know what they need to know. Make sure that’s at the top in bullets, with the email chain only included if it helps further contextualize the story and the participants.
- Answer the questions you’re being asked to answer – Not the question you think they are asking, or the answer you want to give, or one of the five I asked you. Answer all the actual questions being asked of you. This is important for two reasons: 1) it proves you read the email, and 2) it saves wasting further time with a back and forth exchange of re-asking the same question in different ways.
- Include timelines in your requests – we all have to manage our time with competing priorities. If you send an email with a request, include when you need it by. This allows the person you’re asking to help to prioritize their own schedule to make it work for them. There’s nothing like dropping everything to provide information or a project, only to learn you had a month to do it in.
- Mind your attachments – look for ways to send large files that don’t include filling up someone’s inbox. Whether you’re sending it to a few people or an entire organization, there’s no reason to push the storage limits of staff while making the IT people pull their hair out.
Your Email Pet Peeves
As I mentioned, emails are part of our communication DNA at this point in organizations. So everyone has some experience. I reached out to my community and asked them about their pet peeves (and some suggestions) when it comes to email. It was a sensitive subject.
- Don’t send me an email that only says “Done” or “Thanks.” Waste of time to make me delete it.
- Conversation based email… if it’s going to be quick back & forth either pick up a phone or use a messenger service, Skype, teams, text, whatever, not email.
- Stop cc’ing me on everything! If you can catch me up quick without email, then I don’t want it in my inbox. I do get the cc or bcc if I need to have a record or am about to need to know something. Otherwise, It’s overused and abused.
- Reply All (and then a reply-all response asking people not to reply-all) If there was ever a case for the “are you sure?” button to pop up, it would be when clicking Reply All.
- Focus on one subject, one topic per message.
- Emails that don’t understand the culture. It always bugged me when a corporate newsletter bragged about how financially successful they’ve recently been to employees who feel overworked and under compensated. The company ego stroke just seemed so tone deaf and unnecessary.
- Don’t be sharper with your employees in email than you would be in person. It’s not a leader-y quality.
- Don’t have an email signature block that shows a website, but not an email. Don’t assume that your email address will carry through a forwarded message. Just put it in your main signature block, it’s not like you have to type it out every time.
- Use common language. No one wants verbose emails that use words like “behoove”.
- Don’t use ‘reply’ on an old email for a new topic without even changing the subject line. It’s not hard to start a new chain.
- Don’t perpetuate an email chain with rapid fire bcc/cc correspondence. The point of why people were being bcc’d and cc’d will get lost.
- Use proper grammar. For example: the correct word is “me”. Return to me. Reply to me. Contact me. “Myself” is used when referring to what one does to oneself…not what another does, will do, or should do to you.
- Add an intro or nicety to the first email of correspondence. It instantly puts me off if they don’t. I liken it to a co-worker walking up to you, without saying hello and proceeding to launch directly into what they need from you. I like a little warm up, and I’ll reciprocate.
- Over use of exclamation marks to connote cheeriness, to make up for a fear of how their communication comes across. (Which then can come across childish or vapid from all those exclamations).
- Email should be responded to in a timely fashion. Even if it’s a well crafted automatic reply that states what your policy on responding is: 72 hours, next week, text me I don’t reply to email etc. It manages expectations.
- It drives me nuts when people use ALL CAPS to emphasize… what? Importance?
- You don’t always need to respond to a group email. It’s frustrating that everyone who the email is sent to feels that in order to be seen and demonstrate value, they need to respond to the email. What you get is a lot of response emails with no substance.
- Vague subject lines, or not changing the subject line when the thread goes in a different direction.
If you are rolling your eyes and thinking this isn’t a big deal, you have a bigger problem. You’re not prioritizing employee engagement. This matters, and goes to the relationships you’re trying to build with those in your organization. This matters. And is well worth effort.
If you’re looking to tackle your own message management, I’d recommend Your Email Inbox is an Eyesore from Angela Crocker’s book Declutter your Data.