Author’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles advocating that people and their organizations adopt the S.M.A.R.T. Email Credo. The Credo focuses on the sender’s role in the email overload problem. Better sender behavior reduces the time spent by and the stress on recipients when handling email. An explanation of the what and why of the Credo can be read at the beginning of Part 1 here.
What does the M stand for?
The M in S.M.A.R.T. stands for message formatting. Utilizing email effectively includes focusing on how to format messages that communicate efficiently.
Email exists in the wide space between hard-copy written communication and real-time verbal communication. Email is often conversational in structure, yet the recipient could be hours or days from responding. Leaving the dichotomy of immediate response expectations aside, emails also lack the non-verbal feedback received during real-time communication – tone and, if in person, body language. Recipient confusion is the result of poor email formatting and minimal surrounding clues due to this asynchronous communication environment.
Improved Email Formatting Tips
Treat email more like a letter than conversation. Asynchronous communication mediums like email are best suited for delivering specific directives or factual information. When email is treated too much like a conversation, confusion arises. Here are some tips that will increase your effectiveness with email as a written medium. (Note, developmental or collaborative communications are best suited for live mediums like phone calls and meetings.)
a. Short, Memo Style Writing. Most memos are short bursts of information. Some are instructive. Some are directives. Most are one paragraph to one page in length. Consider emails electronic memos. Keep the information succinct and the writing crisp. Get to the point so the reader can get to work on the information. Investigate the five-sentences movement for more instruction on this suggestion.
b. Conclude/Request Up Front, Detail Follows. Most people want to know what the email is about quickly, so give it to them. Put any conclusions or requests right up front. This helps the recipient prioritize their workload. Use the rest of the email to add any necessary detail to support the conclusion or request. Examples include:
- Conclusion: Given the particular circumstances detailed below, we recommend X.
- Request: As detailed below, please provide us with X no later than Thursday so we can proceed.
c. Use Alpha/Numeric or Bullet-Point Lists and Summary Statements, Detail Below. Separate topics using alpha/numeric or bullet-point lists. Parsing the information with visual cues relieves the recipient from having to do so. It’s also easier to find pertinent information on subsequent readings. Additional information can be added below the list with appropriate reference back to the original item.
- Item 1. This is the first thing I want to discuss.
- Item 2. This is the second thing I want to discuss.
- Bullet Point Number 1. This is bullet point number one.
- Bullet Point Number 2. This is bullet point number two.
d. Identify Responsible Party for Deliverables. When multiple recipients are present in an email, specifically identify who is responsible for each deliverable by preceding the directive with their name. Doing so eliminates the risk of miscommunication and/or misunderstanding.
Everyone: This is a very important opportunity for us, so please stay focused on our goals.
Jane: Please craft the first round of drafts and send them to me by Friday.
Jim: You’re in charge of planning the closing logistics. Please produce a strike list and send it to me by Wednesday.
What Can I Do?
- You can be part of the solution.
- You can adopt one or more of the suggestions above.
- You can promote these suggestions to others on your team and in your organization.
By formatting your emails more effectively, your communications will be clearer and require less dissection by your recipients.
Next, we focus on addressing email to ensure the right people, and only the right people, are getting our communiques.
Part 1 of the S.M.A.R.T. Email Credo can be read here.