Part 1 in this series looked at how our love-hate relationship with e-mail developed. It proposed changing our perspective to better align our expectations with what e-mail actually is and does – a modern way of doing something we’ve long done otherwise (send communiques). Finally, the first missive provided two suggestions to help you regain command of e-mail by reducing the stress it causes and by increasing your efficiently when using this powerful tool. I refer you to that article for a more in-depth discussion of those topics.
This installment turns to individual e-mails and looks at a couple of tips that will make each e-mail more effective and efficient.
The Drill Down
Aside from the addictive behaviors people exhibit around e-mail, many of the problems arising from its use result from sloppy habits when creating an e-mail.
Much has been made about the demise of grammatical and spelling accuracy in e-mail, as well as the ever-growing short hand that has developed. That’s not the point here. The point here is that not enough care is taken when constructing an e-mail. As a result, mis-communication and confusion abound. The two suggestions below demonstrate this notion while addressing ways to correct the problem.
One Subject Per E-mail
One of the greatest mistakes routinely made by virtually everyone who uses e-mail is mixing multiple subjects into one communique. The problem here is that people only remember so much of what they read. Consequently, if information about multiple subjects is included in one e-mail, mis-understanding and confusion is likely to occur. Let’s look at an example of the phenomena.
There is a game played around the camp fire where the first person whispers a story into the second person’s ear. The second person then whispers the story into the ear of the third person and around the camp fire the story is told. When the last person has heard the story, he/she turns and tells the story to the entire group. The story the last person tells is wildly different than the story the first person started.
The reason the story changes so much is that people only remember pieces of what they read, hear or see. (There are numerous studies on this, but the point here is that less than 100% retention occurs). Moreover, people tend to fill in the blanks in their memory, creating further deviation from the original message.
The net effect is that when people are given lots of information to manage, there is a risk of mis-understanding or confusion. Mixing in multiple subject matters to that information transfer increases that risk by an order of magnitude.
Applying these observations to our situation here, if two subjects are covered in one e-mail, the reader may rely or act upon on a mix of that information. If that happens, they are likely to do the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing is, at a minimum, a waste of time and, at a maximum, a huge problem. And that’s just the “effectiveness” analysis.
There’s also an “efficiency” issue here. If you have two subjects in one e-mail, where do you file that e-mail (assuming it needs to be retained)? How do you find it later if you need it? The short answer is you have to file that one e-mail in two places, which raises a number of other concerns. For example, any time you have do something twice, you increase the risk of error by 100%. Also, what do you do if there is confidential information in one part of that e-mail that shouldn’t be filed with the other subject?
The Rule: One Subject Per E-mail. They’re essentially free to send, so send as many as you need to in order to increase your effectiveness and efficiency.
Leverage E-mail Subject Lines
I am old enough to remember sending actual business (and personal) letters to people. Letter structures looked something like this:
RE: Specific Description Summarizing the Subject of the Letter
Body of Letter
Though many of the elements in letter writing persist in modern e-mails – date, addressee, salutation, body, and signature block – the use of the RE: line has changed considerably … for the worse. The purpose of a RE: (or Subject line) is to give the reader an idea of the letter’s subject matter. It also provides direction on where to file the letter, as well as a way to quickly find it later when sifting through reams of paper.
In short, the Subject line does some pretty heavy lifting! So why don’t we use it to greater effect in e-mail? The vast majority of e-mails sent have very skimpy, often useless, Subject lines. We’ve all seen some of these:
None of these provide the reader any useful information concerning the subject of the e-mail, nor do they assist in the filing or retrieval of these communications. Moreover, whenever an Inbox has numerous High Priorities, the hunt-and-seek method is the ONLY way to find the one the reader is looking for! Use of sloppy Subject lines drives ineffectiveness and inefficiency by failing to communicate valuable information in a readily-available manner and by causing readers to comb through many similarly titled e-mails.
Simply improve the content you place on the Subject line to eliminate all the problems listed above. Here are some simple examples:
Update: Johnson marketing campaign – Results as of 11/16/2010
High Priority: Please call Jane Doe at 111.222.3333 about tomorrow’s meeting
Is that so hard? In fact, if you want to be a power-user, create a simple naming convention that you re-use for every e-mail (and other Subject lines – appointments, tasks, etc.) so that crafting these summaries becomes both easier (because it follows a form you create) and more effective (because you can include even more information). Here are a couple of examples of the Subject line naming convention I use:
Send: 10 QuietSpacing books and QuickStart cards – Regular mail – Delivery by xx/xx/xxxx
Conference call – Smith Matter – Please Join – Tuesday, 11/16/2011 – 10:00 AM Pacific – Conference Bridge – xxx.xxx.xxxx, Access #1234
You can see that these are very quick to craft because I’m focused on the subject at the time I’m writing the e-mail. Moreover, the recipient immediately knows what I’m communicating and can open the e-mail with a head start on the details. Later, when he/she needs to find this e-mail again, it can be sorted quickly and/or found by looking down just the Subject lines with no need to open and read a list of e-mails. Finally, it can be readily filed by the recipient or a third-party without digging into the body. Fast and effective!
The Rule: Leverage Your E-mail Subject Lines. When you are crafting an e-mail, you are already focused on the subject, so just give your recipient the benefit of good, articulate information in the Subject line.
Each E-mail Matters
If we start from the assumption that e-mails are sent about things that matter, then developing some specific rules for crafting each e-mail will improve both our effectiveness and our efficiency. In this Part 2 of Making E-mail Work For You, those suggestions are to include only one subject in each e-mail and to craft robust Subject lines.
These two tips will greatly reduce the risk of mis-communication and increase the efficiency of reading and managing e-mail. With less time spent dealing on clarifying or dealing with e-mail, there’s more time to do the things you want to do!