Email techniques for a time-starved world

Email is like a bridge between two worlds – it is electronic, which makes it part of the modern world, certainly, but it is a letter, which makes it part of the past few centuries – structured and formatted like its paper-based predecessors. The formality of email has long been a challenge when it comes to managing time. When you sit down to write an email, the actions involved are as formal as those of placing a piece of paper into a typewriter, or dipping a quill pen into an ink jar. The action is formal and focused.

Similarly, when receiving an email it has been shown through numerous clinical observations that the actions of stopping what you are doing to read and reply actually shift the nutrients and oxygen in the brain away from their useful positions and into fight-or-flight mode. This reflex is based out of our innate fear of the unknown, and takes many minutes to recover from. When this physiological drainage happens dozens or even hundreds of times per day, it is no wonder that people lose track of their time.

Every email must account for its value. Time is precious. Just like every meeting you attend and every task that you perform, there must be a bottom-line dollar value to it that makes it worth doing.

My suggestions for economical and effective email in this day and age are as follows:

  1. Summarize: Make sure the subject line says 100% of what you want to say, in 12 words or less. Drop the “Fwd” or “Re” and replace with something meaningful.
  2. Twitterize: take a lesson from Twitter and keep your message body as short as possible. Twitter demonstrates just how easy it is to say something in a very small number of words. You can do the same. Get your writing down to its shortest possible, because your audience just does not have the time or attention for long essays.
  3. Singularize: Stick to only one message per email. If you have two or more different topics to talk about, send one email for each. If you place three or more items in a single email, the odds are good that only the first or last idea/request will be remembered and acted upon, the rest will be forgotten.
  4. Personalize: Try to connect individual-to-individual wherever possible. Demonstrate in your email text some type of personal connection so that the reader does not just feel like part of a CC crowd. Incorporate their name into the text. Show them that you care. If you are communicating to a group, don’t use email. See Point 10 below.
  5. Customize: Choose the medium and style that fits your recipient. Maybe they prefer phone calls. Most likely they will prefer texting ( again another nice, brief alternative). Get to know your people on a one-to-one basis  and see what works for them, since this will best get their attention.
  6. Analyze:  Make sure spelling and grammar are correct for your audience. Not all of your readers will be comfortable with short-form texting (the letter “u” instead of “you” or “L8” instead of “late”) but others might be the opposite and may be turned off or intimidated by excessive prose. Your message must both represent you and your company as well as connect with your reader. Also, drop the “High Priority” flags. Cut down the monstrous signature lines that tell your readers you can be reached by phone, fax, blog, website, twitter, toll-free and carrier pigeon. Lose the graphical backgrounds. Eliminate excessive punctuation!!!  and WRITING IN CAPS.  These all lost their value a long time ago.
  7. Accessorize: Use links to additional resources, instead of writing extraneous background material. Use links also in place of attachments wherever possible. (see Point 10 below)
  8. Standardize: Be consistent in your writing style, choice of font, grammar, degree of formality/informality, and your use of headers, signatures and contact information. In a fast-changing world, your clients/contacts will feel a little more comfortable with you if your visual approach stays constant.
  9. Prioritize: decide whether it is more advantageous for you to choose times in the day to answer your emails as a group (this allows for better time management and greater focus),  or to answer them quickly and immediately, which allows for a greater sense of control in most people. Pick a technique and commit. You will feel better, and all of your work will benefit from a heightened sense of control.
  10. Centralize: If you are communicating with more than one person, then avoid email completely whenever possible. Set them up on a collaborative central work zone such as Google Docs or Sharepoint, where their comments can be posted FaceBook style, rather than in hundreds of cc’d emails. All related documents and links can be posted in this same area and everyone can congregate and communicate as a group on their own time.

The bottom line: the pace of life is moving faster and faster, and people do not have time or the attention that they might have had a generation or two ago. Capitalize on the speed and ubiquity of your technologies but remember, ultimately every message you send actually goes from a person to another person. Your job is to stay mindful of that and to not let your technologies muddy the connection.

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