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Less-Is-More Blog by Pierre Khawand

4 Tips to Make Your Business E-mail Writing More Effective

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 @ 03:48 PM

describe the imageby Lynda McDaniel, Your Inspired Writing Coach, and People-OnTheGo Faculty Member

We love to use e-mail because it's fast and easy. We also complain about e-mail because it’s fast and easy. The speed of e-mail too often means irritating, typo-filled messages that don’t get to the point quickly (the number one pet peeve in surveys of e-mail recipients.)

What’s wrong?

Some problems with e-mail stem from the challenge of all written words: no gestures, no facial expressions, no eye contact or tone of voice to support the message. Without the twinkle in the eye or the pat on the back, the reader may misinterpret the meaning of the words.

The speed of e-mail also contributes to its problems. Because we can send it fast, we think we should write it fast, dashing off messages without editing or proofing. Otherwise, it's not fast, is it? As a result, huge blocks of sloppy, rambling copy clog our inboxes.

Only to be deleted.

describe the imageI was amazed when I learned that at least half my students and clients freely admit to deleting e-mails they don’t like the looks of. When I asked what they said if asked about the message, they shrugged and answered, "We just say we didn't receive it." Ouch! All that work, but no one reads it.

What's right?

Let’s look at how you can overcome these challenges to write effective e-mail that get the results you need.

-> Sign up for our Business E-mail Writing webinar on April 10, 2014.

1. Subject line

You have only 10 seconds to grab your potential readers’ attention, so be sure to craft subject lines from their perspective. Include benefits they can relate to. For example, which of these would you open?

Carpet repair today or Early closing today

The writer wanted her staff to leave at 2:00 p.m. because the office would close early for carpet repairs. She sent the subject line on the left and was surprised to see everyone still working at 2:10 p.m. Her subject line didn’t pass the “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM?) test.  No one read it. If she’d sent the second version, everyone would have left at 1:59 p.m.

2. Get to the point quickly

Make sure your first paragraph informs your readers about the reason for your e-mail. Summarize your topic and then go into detail.  Remember: everyone is asking WIIFM?

3. Write to your readers, not at them

Don’t just data dump. Tell stories, benefits, and results through your readers' eyes. Use the word "you" often to engage them. "You" is a proven magnet that keeps people reading.

4. End with impact

Leave a lasting impression and make your expectations known. E-mail offers fast calls to action—just tell your readers to hit reply, click a link, download a document. Finally, let them know what the next steps are—you’ll call, they need to call or RSVP. And include your contact information. No contact information is another high-ranking pet peeve.

We'll go into detail on all these points—plus many more in my upcoming Business E-mail Writing webinar on April 10, 2014.

-> Click now for more details on the webinar.

 

 Additional Resources & Webinars

Topics: business writing, email etiquette, guest bloggers

I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. by Kyle Wiens (Harvard Business Review, 7/20/12); summary + commentary by Lynda McDaniel

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Sun, Jul 29, 2012 @ 04:23 PM

Haven't heard about our summary+commentary (s+c*d) format? Learn more!

Guest blog article by Lynda McDaniel

Summary

SpellingGrammar Summary and Commentary People OnTheGo

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Kyle Wiens calls himself a “grammar stickler.” He explains that everyone applying for a position at either of his companies, iFixit or Dozuki, is required to take a grammar test. With the exception of a couple of extenuating circumstances—dyslexia and English-language learners—he has a “‘zero tolerance approach’ to grammar mistakes.”

The difference between “too/to,” “its/it’s” and “their/they’re/there” is important, especially at his companies where the main products are user manuals and technical documentation. But grammar matters at every company, he explains. Whether in blogs and articles, e-mails or company websites, Wiens believes “your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence.”

Commentary

Wiens comments echo my own efforts to elevate the quality of writing in the workplace. I appreciate his insights about people judging us with the clues they have—which today are often only our words. Fortunately, people seem to be increasingly interested in refreshing their grammar and punctuation skills. So I question Wien’s rigidity about a single mistake. Excellence is an honorable goal, but not perfectionism. I find perfectionism makes my clients quiver and quake when facing a writing project. It shuts down their creativity and actually causes errors.

Discussion

How are your  grammar and punctuation skills? What is the quality of writing in your workplace? Do you ascribe to a “zero tolerance approach”? Where do you stand on the difference between perfectionism and excellence?

Additional Resources

Topics: business writing, email etiquette, guest bloggers, summary-plus-commentary

Your Bad Grammar at Work: What's the Problem? by Alison Griswold (Forbes, 6/22/12); summary + commentary by Lynda McDaniel

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Sat, Jun 30, 2012 @ 05:02 PM

Haven't heard about our summary+commentary (s+c*d) format? Learn more!

Guest blog article by Lynda McDaniel

Summary

NoTecknolegy By Sammy0716Flickr c2008

Alison draws from a Wall Street Journal article about grammar gaffes invading the workplace. She offers some legitimate reasons for this, such as words and usage have always changed over time. (After all, we don’t sound like Shakespeare!) She takes a close look at more common gaffes in today’s business writing, such as its/it’s, who/whom, less/fewer, their/they’re/there.

The article also explores her concern that the subjective tense is missing from most business writing today. As she explains, subjunctive tense is used when posing a hypothetical. We should say, “If I were the manager,” instead of, “If I was the manager.” The articles closes with six tips from author George Orwell, including 1) Never use a long word where a short one will do and 2) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Read the full article.

Commentary

I agree with Alison that good grammar is vital. But what concerns me more than the missing subjunctive is our growing struggle to craft cohesive thoughts. Texts and tweets have taken their toll. We need to write longer and more thoughtfully in order to engage our readers and tap into insights and creative ideas. We can learn to write faster and more effectively, and when we do, we enjoy increased results, respect, and revenues.

Discussion

How is your writing changing? When are texts or short e-mails the perfect response? When do you need to spend more time developing your thoughts? Neuroscientists have proven that we have all kinds of great ideas just waiting for us to tap into them, and writing can help us discover them. Do you spend time exploring your thoughts and creativity?

Additional Resources

Topics: business writing, email etiquette, summary-plus-commentary

Are you an e-mail "airhead"? The 360-degree feedback!

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 @ 06:24 AM

Last week, I wrote about 5 specific behaviors that e-mail users
tend to display, and that can drive their team's productivity down.

These behaviors were

  • Not responding to legitimate e-mails and leave others in the dark
  • Abandoning e-mail conversations in the middle and leave them hanging
  • Responding to e-mail only partially leaving important issues unanswered
  • Responding to e-mail vaguely delaying dealing with the real issues
  • Copying everyone and their brother unnecessarily

I also included a brief self-assessment (the 3-minute e-mail "airhead" test) that can help us reflect on the above behaviors and recognize how much we engage in them.

From Self to Others

While a self-assessment can be useful, the real assessment needs to include "others"; the people who send us e-mail or are on the receiving end of our e-mails, and who may have differing opinions about whether we engage in these e-mail "airhead" behaviors and to what degree.

I am inviting you to involve others in helping you assess your e-mail behaviors by sending them this 360-degree feedback form (see below), so they can give you their input on your e-mail behaviors. Forward to them the form and ask them for their feedback (anonymously if preferable). Ideally you would include people from all angles, like your colleagues, your direct reports,  your manager, and potentially people from other groups.


Download the e-mail 360-degree feedback (PDF, Microsoft Word, Web Form)

Once you gather the feedback, compare it to your own self-assessment, and see what you learn, and what adjustments you might want to make to how you manage e-mail.

Score interpretation

As a recap from last week, here is the interpretation of the score:

  • Total e-mail airhead: Total score of 15 or above
  • Semi e-mail airhead:  Total score of 10 to 14
  • Human e-mail user: Total score of 7 to 9
  • Accomplished e-mail user: Total score of 4 to 6
  • Total e-mail geek: Total score of 0 to 3

Stay tuned for more tips and techniques relating to e-mail management!

Additional resources

The Managing and Organizing Your E-mail Inbox

The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook

Topics: email etiquette, email management

5 things e-mail "airheads" do! Are you an e-mail airhead? Take the test!

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Thu, Aug 19, 2010 @ 08:58 AM

We all do some of this at least some of the time, but when we do most of this and most of the time, this can drive our productivity and our team's productivity down drastically. 

5 things that e-mail airheads do

  1. Don't respond to legitimate e-mails and leave others in the dark
  2. Abandon e-mail conversations in the middle and leave them hanging
  3. Respond to e-mail only partially leaving important issues unanswered
  4. Respond to e-mail vaguely delaying dealing with the real issues
  5. Copy everyone and their brother unnecessarily

Take the 3-minute e-mail airhead test now!

Interpreting the score

After you take the test and add your scores, please review the following:

  • Total e-mail airhead: Total score of 15 or above
  • Semi e-mail airhead:  Total score of 10 to 14
  • Human e-mail user: Total score of 7 to 9
  • Accomplished e-mail user: Total score of 4 to 6
  • Total e-mail geek: Total score of 0 to 3

Stay tuned for more tips and techniques relating to how to deal with e-mail "airheads" and how not to be one, more often than not!

Topics: email etiquette, email management

Tip-Of-The-Month: How to manage the e-mail overload, part 3 of many

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Mon, May 17, 2010 @ 08:16 PM

manage e-mail overload
So far, I wrote about 2 strategies (Using e-mail for what e-mail is best at, and Simplifying and optimizing the process) and today, I will continue with the 3rd strategy which is “Significantly reducing the output and the input.”  As you know if you have been following this series of articles which I started in March, my goal is to tackle the issue of e-mail management from several angles. The ultimate goal is to formulate effective and sustainable strategies, as opposed to quick and short lived fixes, for getting the e-mail overload well under control and leading more accomplished and happier work lives. 

I need your involvement

e-mail survey
The e-mail (and Social Media) challenges are not going away anytime soon. In addition, the benefits and opportunities that these technologies bring are humungous. I need your involvement in helping address these challenges and maximize these benefits. Here is how you can help.

  • Set 30 minutes of uninterrupted time on your calendar this week to:
     
  • Review the 3 articles that I already published on this topic (#1#2, as well as this article which is strategy #3)
     
  • Share your feedback about these topics by adding your comments to above articles as you see fit (see comment section at the bottom of each article page)
     
  • Start to implement these strategies and report on your experiences and the results you are getting and any additional feedback you might have.
     
  • Take the 5 minute e-mail and Social Media survey which will help you reflect on relevant issues and become part of this effort.
     
  • Encourage your team to do the same. E-mail after all impacts all of us!
And now back to Strategy #3: Significantly reducing the output and the input

Significantly reducing the output

manage e-mail overload
“Why worry about the output?” you might ask! Isn’t our main goal to manage our “in”box? Which is basically the input that comes our way?

You are probably familiar with the saying: “What goes around comes around.” And this is so true for e-mail. The more output we create, the more input will be generated. This is not just about quantity but also about quality. Sending e-mails that are not clear and not relevant to the core business issues at hand is likely to generate more questions, more distractions, and endless back and forth e-mails conversations that contribute little or no value. Copying people unnecessarily is sure to turn these conversations into an avalanche. So output is one of the root causes of input. That is why we will start with the output first.

By the way, strategy #1 (Using e-mail for what e-mail is best at) already paved the road and started the journey of reducing the output. Actually we can argue that strategy #1 is all about reducing the output when we apply it individually and it is about reducing the input when we apply it as a group. This brings an interesting question: “Is the e-mail overload primarily an individual problem or a group problem?” Of course it is both, but if you had to choose, which would you choose as the primary? 

I believe it is primarily an individual problem and secondarily (but a close second) a group problem. Why? Because when we sit at that computer, or iPad, or whatever device we use, and create that e-mail, this is an individual effort. Whatever I start in that e-mail is the beginning of a chain reaction that is likely to impact the group and pick up momentum; hence the extra care required in creating each and every message.

In addition to strategy #1, and assuming you have mastered that strategy and encouraged your team to do so, here are the next steps in reducing the output:

  1. Answer/send an e-mail only when it is related to your top priorities and your team’s top priorities, and only when you are adding significant value; difficult to do, but you will save a lot of time and people will start paying more attention to your e-mails when they get them.
     
  2. If you wish to share your knowledge and expertise or socialize with people and groups outside your team and your top priorities, find other ways to do so. E-mail is not the best tool for sharing knowledge and for socializing. 
     
  3. Another variation to step #1 above is to wait on, or not answer, the non-urgent and not so important e-mails. It is likely that the issue will go away or someone else will address it. People will also learn not to send you the not so important stuff.
     
  4. Answer/send 140 characters; if there is more to say, put it in bullet points or a numbered list. Make it clear and succinct. Elevate the standards for e-mail composition instead of adopting or accepting the lowest common denominator. 
     
  5. Address the core issues and not dance around them. Stop and check-in again if e-mail is the best way to do so. But if it is, get to these issues sooner than later. Save yourself and your team significant time and demonstrate and model direct and open communication.
     
  6. Delegate issues and decisions and don’t ask to be copied on them. Instead ask to be consulted only on as-needed basis, and to be updated when critical points are reached. Invest your time in developing the people instead of reading and writing e-mails.
     
  7. Keep checking with yourself as to whether you should move this issue to a medium other than e-mail. 

Significantly reducing the input

manage e-mail overload
As you put the steps suggested above into practice, the input will be significantly less. In addition, here are some additional steps you can take the further reduce the input:

  1. Unsubscribe from e-mail lists that are not related to your top priorities. Unfortunately most of us don’t have the luxury to go through secondary topics and issues. While this information may be helpful, it can also be very distracting. If you haven’t looked at these e-mails for a while, this is a sufficient indication that you need to unsubscribe.
     
  2. Add rules and filters to file selected e-mails into designated folders which can then be visited on an as-needed basis. Be creative with these rules, using sender’s names or e-mail addresses for instance, or keywords in the subject line or body, or whatever else can help you identify them.
     
  3. Add rules and filter to categorize (or color) and sort the important messages based on the sender such as your and your customers. While this does not reduce the input per se, it does guide you to the most important input first.
     
  4. Create an auto-reply that provides people with helpful resources and asks them to resend their inquiry if they still need help; This can work well if you happen to receive many generic requests that your senders can get answers for from self-service resources that are easily available.
     
  5. Delegate the first pass of e-mail processing to your assistant if that is an option; If you have someone assisting you with your office work, consider training them to go through your e-mails, categorize the ones that require your attention, and process or file the rest. 
Stay tuned for the next Tip-Of-The-Month article where I will discuss the next strategy: "Fearlessly facing the issues."

Also, stay tuned for the upcoming book on how to manage the e-mail overload and Social Media (these articles and the latest findings from our ongoing research and development effort will be part of the book)!

Topics: email etiquette, tip-of-the-month, email management

Tip-Of-The-Month: How to manage the e-mail overload, part 2 of many

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Sun, Apr 18, 2010 @ 11:23 AM

e-mail managementMany of the business professionals we talk to seem to report that they spend endless hours in their e-mail inboxes. They tend to "live" there checking e-mail every few minutes or even seconds, having a dozen of e-mail messages open simultaneously, hopping from one to the next, and then deserting the latest one as soon as they hear the beep or see the alert, to open yet another message. Someone confessed recently at one of our workshops that when no new e-mails show up, he sometimes catches himself pressing the send/receive button repeatedly as if he is desperate for more. Does it sound like an addiction? Well, it is.

There is a lot more to discuss about this addiction, and this will be one of the topics we will touch on in future articles, but for now, we are going to focus on simplifying and optimizing the process--the e-mail management process that is. This is the second out of five strategies that I layout out in the last tip-of-the-month in which I also discussed the first strategy: "Using e-mail for what e-mail is best at."

The simplified e-mail process

Instead of "living" in the inbox and working on e-mail messages in an ad-hoc fashion, how about treating e-mail like any other task with a beginning and an end. We will discuss below how frequently we engage into this task, but for now, let us focus on the mechanics of this task. Let us also give this task a name: "Processing the Inbox." Processing the Inbox consists of the following:

  • Going through the inbox one message at a time, starting with the most recent, and not leaving that message until we make a decision about it.
     
  • If a message is urgent, we handle it right away.
     
  • If a message is quick and easy, we hand it right away.
     
  • If a message cannot be handled right away, for one reason or another, we make a decision about when we want or need to handle it and flag accordingly (or categorize it, or tag it, or label it, depending on which e-mail application you are using):
     
    • If it has to be handled today, then flag it with a red flag
    • It it can wait until tomorrow or later, then flag it with a blue flag
    • If it can be delegated to someone else, then forward it to them, and flag it with a yellow flag

Processing the Inbox is not complete until you process all the new messages in the inbox (the messages that arrived since you checked the inbox last).

To see this process in action, view the free training module (see form in the left column) which demonstrates the step by step process (in this case for Microsoft Outlook 2003, even though the above process can be adapted to any version of Outlook or any other e-mail application that supports tagging or labeling such as Google Mail, and applications with add-on's that support tagging such as MailTags for Mac Mail).

The optimized e-mail process

Now that we have a process down, and we don't just do e-mail one at a time and endlessly, there is still an important questions to answer, and that is how often do we check e-mail? In other words, how do we optimize our workflow?

This brings us to the core issue that I have been evangelizing for years, and which I recently published in its most comprehensive form: The Results Curve--How to Manage Focused and Collaborative Time (free download available).  I won't discuss the details of the Results Curve here, but according to the Results Curve, it is best to check e-mail every 40 minutes, or whatever length of focused time you choose. So instead of checking e-mail every few minutes or few seconds or as soon as you hear the beep or see the alert, let e-mail wait until the next collaborative session.

This also means that at the end of the day, we need to leave room for an e-mail session, where we go through the messages we flagged for today, and handle these messages.

Before you answer your next e-mail, stop for a second and ask the question: Should I interrupt my current task and jeopardize my results, or should I wait until the next collaborative session?

Stay tuned for the next Tip-Of-The-Month article where I will discuss the next strategy: "Significantly reducing the output and the input."

Topics: email etiquette, tip-of-the-month, email management

Tip-Of-The-Month: How to manage the e-mail overload, part 1 of many

Posted by Pierre Khawand on Sun, Mar 28, 2010 @ 06:19 PM

In this series of articles, my goal is to tackle the issue of e-mail management from several angles. The e-mail overload problem is multi-faceted and not something that can be solved quickly. Most of us, bloggers and Twitterers are guilty of giving the impression that we can help our readers solve major problems by giving them the miraculous solution in a few paragraphs or even 140 characters. Let us stop this wishful thinking. Significant challenges require innovative solutions and persistent application of these solutions as well as ongoing learning and adjustment. This requires trial and error over a period of time until we find the winning formula.

If you are getting a large number of e-mails and feeling that e-mail is exhausting and out of control, I have some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is that there is no immediate and easy solution (other than finding a new job and starting fresh, which is only a temporary solution). The good news is that there is a whole set of effective strategies that we can deploy to get the e-mail overload well managed. All together, these strategies are likely to bring us a significant relief and help us refocus our energy on the core issues and create more compelling results.

In the upcoming weeks and months, I will be writing a series of articles on this blog and elsewhere addressing at least five of these e-mail strategies and probably more. While many of these strategies are derived from the Accomplishing More With Less Methodology (see free e-book, workbook, and workshops), these articles will also include the latest findings from our ongoing research effort and will be part of the upcoming book on how to effectively manage your e-mail and Social Media activities. Hope you will join us in this effort and participate in the E-mail and Social Media 5-minute survey as well as post your comments on this blog.

The five e-mail strategies

Simply put, here are the five e-mail strategies:

  1. Using e-mail for what e-mail is best at
  2. Simplifying and optimizing the process
  3. Significantly reducing the output and the input
  4. Fearlessly facing the issues
  5. Attacking the root causes

Let us start with the first strategy and stay tuned for more!

Using e-mail for what e-mail is best at

When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail:

e-mail overload

Oh well! We have the hammer, and in this case it is called "e-mail." We have it and we tend to use it all the time. E-mail is easy. It is quick. It costs virtually nothing (if we are only looking at the hard costs). In addition, we can say whatever we want in an e-mail and not get interrupted by someone else's point of view (can be rewarding but dangerous). So no wonder why we are so quick to use it in almost any situation.

Blinded by the ease and speed of e-mail, among other factors, we tend to forget that e-mail is not the only tool for communicating. This is a list of some of the tools that can largely benefit us when used appropriately in conjunction with e-mail. What do you think these tools are ideal for and not so ideal for? Use this opportunity to jot down your answers and then compare with the answers below:

  Ideal for  Not so ideal for 
 E-mail  < jot down your answers >  < jot down your answers>
 Instant Messaging    
 Phone Calls    
 Web Conferencing    
 Virtual Worlds    
 Video Conferending    
 In-Person    

While there is not one answer, and no right or wrong answer, when it comes to how best to utilize these tools, here are some suggested answers as a starting point:

  Ideal for  Not so ideal for 
 E-mail  Factual/Asynchronous    Emotional
 Instant Messaging  Quick exchanges  Long exchanges
 Phone Calls  Discussions  Visuals
 Web Conferencing  Document sharing  Interacting/Seeing people
 Virtual Worlds  Interacting  Simple hardware setup
 Video Conferending  Seeing people  Simple hardware setup
 In-Person  Complex/Emotional  Remote people

Let us add a few more asynchronous tools to the mix

  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • SharePoint
  • Google Docs 

Blogs, wikis, Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs, and other information and document sharing tools, can tremendously help take the load off of e-mail. One of the examples that I give in our workshops relate to how blogs for instance (in this case, we are referring to internal blogs) can help the knowledge experts within the team or organization answer important questions once instead of time after time, and make these answers accessible to everyone within the team or organization. E-mail is not the best way to leverage and share knowledge.

Let us start using e-mail for what e-mail is best at! Before you write your next e-mail, stop for a second and ask the question: Should this be an e-mail or not?

Stay tuned for the next Tip-Of-The-Month article where I will discuss the next strategy: "Simplifying and optimizing the process."

 


 

Topics: email etiquette, tip-of-the-month, email management