email protocol: avoiding screwups

So. On the list of requested topics I have received was emails and emailing. Basically it was asking how an old guy like me (or let’s say “my generation of workers”) could effectively manage younger people in the world of emailing.

Well. Emails are tricky in business. Mostly because those of us already in business learned writing rules of the road in written correspondence and the generation most comfortable using email learned it as a social tool (not business communication). But in my eyes it comes down to something borrowed and something new. Some things my generation learned (and were kind of steeped in with regard to written communications) are valuable to apply and some things new compatible with email and technology should be applied.

I found a nice site that reviewed the positives and negatives (or shortcomings) of email communication as well as just simply outlined how to define email communication.

–          Email is a virtual dialogue which is not in real time; it lacks face to face cues such as expression and emotion. Often to compensate for the lack of non verbal cues we use “please” and “thank you” to aid the expression of collegiality. Another way to aid in the expression of emotion is the use of emoticons; or . The speed of response with emails makes them almost an instantaneous form of communication; although this is great for quick turnaround time a writer of emails must take into consideration the readers needs and preferences. If an emails tone is blunt and to the point a reader may interpret this as insensitive and/or the meaning maybe lost. Therefore, tone must be created through careful word/sentence structures.

I find it interesting to note that email communication now exceeds telephone communication. Emailing is now the dominant form of business communication <and I believe many older executives do not like this fact>. Recent research indicates that employees will spend half their day reading and responding to email communication. This is most interesting because it should affect (I say “should” because I still see managers in my generation trying to force feed phone calls into the younger generation’s work habits) the way managers manage the younger generation. You will see in my thoughts on email protocol how I (and it may not be the best way but it always worked for me) attempted to weave telephone activity into an email <or  just any “e”> driven communication generation.

So. With all that said here are some thoughts for email protocol I typically share with my teams/companies to help avoid some of the issues we often see pop up:

The Basics.

A Subject line:

–   Client name or company name so people can identify who it is about

–   Topic following the company identifier (what is the subject? A point of view, update, etc.)

The subject line (the re: ) is probably the most misused portion of email and yet offers the largest opportunity similar to the old subject line in written communication.

Forwarding and email “strings”:

–   General rule. NEVER forward an internal email externally. This may be the most abused email action in business. It is lazy and poor communication protocol in general.

–   And certainly eliminate “strings” of emails (particularly externally … although internally is nice etiquette). No one wants to scan down to put together the logic or “what happened.”

–   Summarize. Summarize. Summarize. I don’t care if you cut & paste (although there are risks involved in doing so and you need to be very careful with regard to tenses and such) but every email should be able to be printed out and stand alone like a letter would have in the “old” days.

Replying, reply all, replying to new people:

–   General rule. Assume if someone sent you, and only you, a message they most likely elected to NOT include anyone else. Therefore, your reply to their email should only be to them. If you elect to copy new people on your response your tendency should be to build a new email from scratch. Always assume the original email sender would have worded things differently if they knew it was going to be seen by someone else.

–   Reply to all.

Tricky one with a variety of aspects. Rule #1. If it is a mass email most likely “reply all” with your response is not necessary. Rule #2. Email is not a chat room (in the business world), therefore, send your response to sender. Rule #3. No humor in a “reply all” message. I can guarantee you someone will not find it funny.

–   The 3 time rule. If you have replied to the same email topic 3 times … know this one thing for sure – something is wrong. What to do? pick up the phone <and not send a 4th email … copying the world in your frustration>. Anything more than 3 responses to the original request becomes a “string” and string emails spell trouble (they end up in some bosses email box at some point most likely with something in the subject line that starts with “help” … oh … and side note … that is “bad.”)

Avoid exclamation marks and all capitals and such:

–   Assume your email WILL be forwarded once it leaves the company.

–   No CEO or President of any company wants to see some smiley face or exclamation point… they want to know that business is being taken care of… in addition… it may be the only exposure you get to senior management and it creates an impression about you so that when you do meet them you want an underlying respect even before you step through the door. Call it the “pre-sell” if you will but keep in mind what you write to your day to day contact will most likely end up in some senior person’s inbox at some point.

– I have one word for you – Shouting. Do you shout in face to face conversations? Do you speak in ‘exclamation points” at end of sentences? Of course you don’t. So do not do it in emails.

–   Question. Have you ever seen a CEO or President end a message with Thanks! … point made.

Some Overall Guidelines.

Call to action:

The number one thing that separates a memo, report, or PowerPoint from The DaVinci Code is a call to action. A novel is to be enjoyed. Business writing is intended to get the audience to do something – invest in an exciting new gummi bear innovation, fill out a form that guarantees some life saving event, or get out of the building in an orderly manner.

Questions to ask: Does my email ask the reader to do anything? If not, why am I sending it?

Oh. Call to action point 2. So you purposefully send an email where no action is required and it is for information only, tell everyone that. “No action required. For information only.” That is as good a call to action as asking someone to actually do something.

Assume nothing:

You have to assume nothing. So let the reader know what thinking has gone on behind the scenes.

Does the reader need to know that the project won’t succeed if the Postal Service strikes or that everything depends on a tsunami not happening in the next 100 years or that if Greece declares bankruptcy the entire firm will implode?

Oh. In addition. When following up, don’t assume everyone remembers everything you’ve said up to this point (nor expect them to scan all the thread to catch up). If you’ve got any worries that an acronym, term, or reference is going to generate a confused moment … just explain it.

Make sure you ask yourself:

Am I relying on what the audience knows or what I think they ought to know?

Am I omitting anything from the reader unintentionally?

If so, why do I want to surprise them later on?

Emails are not like birthday gifts. Surprises are not good. Avoid them.

Do the thinking:

How many times have you gotten an email that says, “What are your thoughts?” followed by a forwarded chain of messages. That’s the writer saying, “I can’t be bothered to explain my reasoning or what I want you to focus on.” When you write … explain what you’re thinking and what you want the reader spending their time on.

Make sure the email gives your opinion and options (calls to action?) for the reader to respond to.

Remember. People are not only NOT mind readers but nowadays no one has time to guess.

Simply state why you are sending this document in the body of the email:

Say it up front. Francis Ford Coppola is paid to surprise and create suspense with people We are paid to not surprise our boss. Whatever the purpose of your missive, say it in the first line. Mystery and stories are great ways to entertain and teach so unless you’re looking for a job doing that spit out why you’re writing up front.

This is basic business writing. Can the reader tell from the subject line and first sentence what I’m writing about without going further?

Don’t make the reader guess or have to work too hard to figure things out.

(dating myself on this one)

In the old days when you crafted a letter you gave the person the opportunity to read the first paragraph and make a decision whether they agreed (and did not read any further) or read on to see the rationale and steps taken to get to the action item. That logic appears to be consistent with what should take place in an email. I am certainly not suggesting everything has to be a novelette, but, think about how often you need to send follow-up emails to explain additional things and how often that would be eliminated if you had taken the time upfront to clearly outline everything necessary for someone to “read and act.

The power of “the call” (when emailing is not right):

I am going to give a couple of examples when it is time to pick up the phone (beyond the 3 email give-an-take example I gave above):

– A well liked employee is leaving the company. Call.

(email doesn’t show enough respect or importance to someone they respected and thought was an important employee)

– You, or the company, made a mistake (even a small one). Call.

(no reason to trust your written communication skills to effective communication. Plus. You may learn something that can end up in written document)

– You want to debate a decision someone made. Call.

(Simplistically email is not built for debate. Plus. A call eliminates any possible misunderstanding of tone. Plus. You owe it to a person to talk with them in a debate. And NEVER debate with one person thru email if others are copied)

– Something happens that could generate rumors if not explained. Call.

(Never hide from communication. Rumors are worse.)

There you go.

Just some suggestions.

Despite the fact we are writing less and less “formal” documents I would still teach business writing. Regardless of its full relevance (or lack thereof) the basics are the basics. Timeless communication tactics remain … well … timeless. Sure. I certainly adapt some aspects to electronic communications but effective communicating still contains certain aspects.

Grab a Strunk & White. Avoid the punctuation crap and focus on effective communication tips.

I decided to write this because if I could point out one business aspect where generational differences affect the business organization this one would probably be at the top of every list. Many older executives just don’t “get” it. And they fight it <and bitch about it>. And all it does is confirm to the younger employees that they are out of touch <and inevitably they will g find a job where they do not feel that way>. It is a two way street to the most effective solution but I find older executives the ones who are providing the biggest roadblock.

Oops. Got to go send an email. Maybe tweet. Or do a ‘shout out.’

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Written by Bruce