Damned if you do; damned if you don’t – emails must be the bane of the modern professional. A senior executive in one of my recent workshops told of having to respond to over 200 emails daily, all of high importance to business operations. That’s not including the various spam messages she might have to delete in between.
Compounding this problem is that different people have different styles. For every keyboard warrior who likes to craft long, scrolling emails, there are 10 who resent anything more than a three-line request. While some managers want to be looped in throughout a project, most resent being cc’d every time.
Four skills are emerging as being important to those at the frontline of all that emailing.
The group message
The general rule is that when you are copied into a group email, you don’t need to respond. Problems arise when the sender silently expects you to read the whole piece, along with the 87 others you receive that day. Oh, and it contains important requests you had to action before a particular time.
For those receiving light to moderate email loads each day, it’s perfectly OK to just scan the email quickly and then file or delete. So, no response needed. For those receiving heavy loads, consider creating an auto-response message noting that you might not respond. For example: ‘This is a courtesy note to let you know that I can’t always respond to group emails. If the matter is important, please email me directly on [email protected] or call.’
If you do have to send a group email, personalise where you can. Instead of sending one email to hundreds of colleagues, break up the email and send to individual teams. Write clear project names and your required action in the subject line, and open the email with a request aimed right at the reader.
The summarised chain
I’m often asked for tips on how to summarise email chains. This need typically emerges when a younger professional, having managed an issue via dozens of back-and-forth emails, now needs to hand the whole matter over to a more senior person.
Will that manager want to browse the whole 20-part email chain, with a casual ‘FYI’ written in the subject line? In most cases, no .They’ll want you to send the chain as an attachment, but with the key parts summarised. Try either of the following grouping techniques to create your summaries:
- Chronology – recreate a neutral sequence of events, such as ‘background’, ‘present concerns’, ‘next steps’ and so on.
- Relationship – group the points in terms of who did what and the significance this has, such as ‘original client brief unclear’, ‘lack of resources causes delay’ and so on. Using analytical headings (like these ones here) will help clarify these impacts.
Apart from summarising the key facts, you’ll sometimes need to correctly interpret the tone or nuances on both sides, along with any legal angles. It’s often worth getting a second opinion here, before sending to that busy senior manager.
The minimal response
Every now and then, in almost every organisation, we’ll get that one individual who loves to craft long, long, lo-o-o-o-o-ng emails that cover every single detail of their subject.
A solution is to write a short return email with the words ‘see below for my responses.’ Then, next to each paragraph of their original letter, write a one-word comment or response. If the person is senior, consider meeting them instead to discuss.
A word of caution to junior staffers who send encyclopedia-sized emails to senior management: expect to be ignored. No manager will read this.
The email report
Just like the PowerPoint report (ugh), the email report seems increasingly commonplace. After all, a lot of reports are just short project summaries, no longer than a standard page of 400 words in length.
First, use the standard ‘purpose – context – call to action’ structure to quickly let your reader know why they are receiving this note. Then, a few return spaces below, write a clear report heading and short summary paragraph followed by four or five sub-categories. Make sure to use bolding and other formatting so your reader can quickly scan the piece for an overview.
Of course, project management tools such as Google Drive, Jira or Slack are helping to minimise emailing. Team members can logon and quickly scan project dashboards to understand what has and hasn’t been done, without any emailing.
It also goes without saying that you should go chat with someone in person whenever you can, and avoid starting open-ended email discussions. There’s also the option of retiring young, becoming a hermit and going off-grid.
Outside of those options, sadly, I haven’t yet come across another way of avoiding emails.