7 Tips for Driving Clarity Through Better E-mail Communication

Posted by Lisa Daly Lehmann on June 27, 2019 5 min read

According to a recent  McKinsey study, highly skilled workers spend an average of 28 percent of their work week reading and responding to e-mails, but give very little time to thinking about how to make their e-mail communications more effective.

This is a waste.

Why? Clear e-mail communication saves time and energy that could be better used elsewhere. Instead of wasting time drafting and decoding confusing, lackluster e-mails, colleagues can focus on serving their organization’s mission.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things that we can all do to improve our communication via e-mail. Doing these things will result in more useful, timely responses, reduced mental fatigue, and saved time.

  1. Consider when a phone call might be better.

Before we get into improving e-mail content, it’s important to note that some things aren’t meant to be communicated via e-mail.

Any time you suspect your message might include highly emotional content, consider whether a phone call or in-person conversation might be more appropriate. In these cases, non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and facial expression are vital, and e-mail just doesn't give you that. No amount of careful wordsmithing or softening emoticons can provide the critical tonal information and feedback needed in those sensitive situations.

Another indication that e-mail may not be the best mode of communication is when you anticipate a lot of back-and-forth interaction. For example, if you know you’re going to have to ask several questions before adequately responding to a message’s central concern, a real-time phone or face-to-face conversation would be much more convenient and effective. This way, you don't have to lay out every possibility or go through multiple rounds of e-mail questions before getting to the point of your communication.

  1. Get more from subject lines.

How many threads are currently going around your office right now with a subject line that ceased being relevant days ago? This issue can and should stop now, and anyone in the thread has the power to correct it. Be the person who changes the subject line when the subject changes. This serves two key functions: first, it makes content easier to find. Second, it helps people understand what awaits them before reading the body of the message.

Here are some tips for writing subject lines:

  • Use standard subject line prefixes with agreed-upon meanings.

Each prefix conveys important and easily recognized information before your recipients even read the body of the e-mail.

  • Use EOM (“End of Message”) or END in subject lines. 
SUBJECT: Received. END

EOM messages are little e-mail gifts to your colleagues – an e-mail they don't even have to open to get the message.

When it comes to regaining control and clarity on runaway threads, it can be tempting to try to be a hero and wrap up everyone's concerns. There is, unfortunately, only one tried and true method to stopping the madness, and that is pulling the conversation offline.

"Hi, I can see that this thread has generated a lot of discussion and questions. I have put a meeting on the calendar with Joe, Serena, and Nancy so that we can get better clarity on this and report back to the larger group." [And then report back to the thread with a clear accounting of what the group agreed upon.]
  1. Proofread before sending.

Proofread, proofread, proofread! Sounds obvious, right? But all too often we send e-mails with poorly articulated comments, typos, and a general lack of clarity. The more important your message is, the more important it is to re-read it carefully before hitting Send – not after the fact from the Sent Items folder. If it’s a particularly high-stakes message, consider saving a draft, sleeping on it, and then re-reading it the next morning.

Proofread, proofread, proofread! Sounds obvious, right? But all too often we send e-mails with poorly articulated comments, typos, and a general lack of clarity.

  1. Build the address list after finalizing your e-mail's content.

Don't add e-mail addressees until you have proofread and finalized your message content. That way, you avoid the risk of accidentally sending your unfinished message to everyone by inadvertently clicking “Send” before you’re ready.

Also, unless you are sending a bulk e-mail like a newsletter, don't blind copy recipients. Blind copying amounts to talking behind someone's back, which is unprofessional. It is deceptive, and you can get caught. It is very easy for the blind copy recipient to fail to realize he’s not actually on the main distribution list, and might reflexively reply all, sharing information that wasn’t meant to be circulated. If you absolutely must copy someone covertly, use forwarding instead of blind copying.

  1. Don't bundle easy items with harder ones.

In my experience, the single biggest reason that a person might not respond to an e-mail is that there is something in it they don’t know what to do with: e.g., a question they can’t answer, an element they don’t understand, or dependencies that require action from another individual. Bundling the easy parts with the harder parts often means the whole thing will sit unanswered until the recipient can gather the mental energy to tease it apart.

Poor example:
Hi Susan,
I saw that the website was down for a few minutes this afternoon. Could you please get me a report on why and what we can do to prevent that in the future?  Also, I need a budget update, and could you please let me know some times when we could meet to discuss the new designs?
Better example:
Hi Susan,
I would like to set up a call to discuss the new designs. I think we probably need about an hour. Our team can be available at any of the following times. Please let me know if there is an hour in there that works for you.
Mon. 10–11 a.m., 3–4 p.m.
Tues. 12–1 p.m.
Fri. 9–11 a.m., 4–5 p.m.

[And then separate e-mails for the other two requests]

Note the first request in the “poor example” is almost impossible to answer (the outage is not pinpointed to a specific time, and it was transient.) The other two items are straightforward, but they are bundled with the really hard one. Also, the non-specific request to meet puts the scheduling onus on Susan, instead of moving the ball forward with what times Karen's team will be available and how much time might be needed for the meeting.  

  1. Don't leave important information buried in an attachment.

When attaching a document to an e-mail, bring the document’s important information into the body of your message instead of relying on your readers to find it for themselves. By helping them in this way, you’re also showing respect for your audience.  Not only do you save time for each recipient on your distribution list, but you also proactively ensure your audience focuses on the content you want them to. The simple act of copying and pasting an attachment’s most important content into the body of the e-mail, or summarizing the key findings, makes it far less likely that your message will get buried in the pile, while simultaneously saving your colleagues precious time.

Poor example:
Hi Susan,
I have attached our report on site performance.  Please let me know if you have any questions.
Better example:
Hi Susan,
I have attached our report on site performance.  Please note that we found a 50 percent improvement over last month’s numbers, but are recommending a couple of small enhancements to improve this even further:
• We recommend implementing site caching, which we expect to provide an additional 20 percent improvement.
• We recommend clearing out some old records in the database, which we expect will provide a small additional improvement.
Please let me know if you have any questions, and if you would like us to move forward with those recommendations.
  1. Focus on the WHAT and the WHY.

Consider what is important to your recipients as well as what is important to you, and then decide what to lead your e-mail with. Consider the extra step of explaining why that thing is important. Providing context around the “why” for a request can do wonders for getting a better response.

Hi Joe,
Do we have a sense of whether we as a company will be pursuing more Oracle-based work?
I ask because I understand that Kevin, on the team working on the current Oracle-based Acme project, is working for us on a short-term basis, but would like to join us on a more permanent basis. (And we would also like that; he’s been wonderful!)
My current concern is that the uncertainty around Kevin's future here is a definite risk for the work we are doing and will do for Acme going forward. (Also, I think we have a good person, who we would like to keep.)

Being more specific about the why behind the question allows Joe to better understand and address the real concern rather than just the initial stated question.

Key takeaways.

Investing care and thought into better e-mail communication can save everyone time and frustration. Doing that will give you and your team more time and mental energy to focus on what is truly important.

Whether it’s by working to untangle complicated messages or composing them yourself, struggling with e-mail presents a big challenge. A poorly written e-mail can lead to misinterpretation and costly mistakes. Because so much time and effort are dedicated to e-mail communication, improving quality should be a prioritized, long-term goal.

When a work environment communicates well, it shows. To get there, it’s worth spending some of the workday reviewing e-mail strategies with your team and saving everyone significant time and frustration. Instead of wasting hours trying to decipher e-mails, your team will be better focused on handling the problems that those e-mails address.

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