Improve your business email skills

I hate email. In fact, I don’t know anyone who likes email.

But we need business email. We really do. I don’t want want to go back to the days of interoffice memos, although I could do without 20-email-long strings that are copied to everyone in the office about how to fix the printer!

Email is eating up more and more of our day. Think for a second: How much has the way you’re dealing with email changed since you had your first AOL account 15 years ago? If your driving had improved that little in 15 years, we’d all be in trouble.

If you don’t think you’ve got a problem, ask yourself:

  • Do you use your inbox as a virtual to-do list?
  • Do you have 10 or more emails open on your desktop waiting to be dealt with?
  • Does absolutely everything go into your email inbox and has now grown to more than 200 (or 2,000, or 20,000) messages?
  • Are you sending 5 or 20 emails back and forth on the same topic and it’s not getting resolved?

These are all bad email habits that are keeping you from being as productive as you can be (and keeping you in the office longer than you should be.).

Really you are “doing” email like a Neanderthal. Your whole company is likely doing it too. If your bad email habits are costing you an hour a day (conservatively), multiply that by every person in your company… and you’ve got a big email problem.

I’m going to do a short blog series over the next couple of weeks about doing email better. We’re going to look at some do’s and don’ts, identify some new ideas, and generally find ways to tame the email tiger.

Before we go – I’ve started a list of things that email is good for, and things it’s not good for. I’d love it if you’d leave me a comment to add to either list.

What is email good for?

  1. Giving directions or conveying information. Straight information download? Email is perfect.
  2. Providing short status updates. Proactively updating your boss, or your team? Great, you can send it now and they can check it when they are ready to read it.
  3. Asking and answering straightforward questions.  If the question requires a brief answer, and it’s clear what you are asking. Email it.
  4. Recording decisions made during a verbal conversation.  Email is great for documenting what was agreed to verbally.
  5. Reminders and other asynchronous communication.  When you need to send it at a time when the other person may not be available to read it. Email works.

What is email NOT good for?

  1. Debate or gaining consensus (this is what meetings are good for).  How do you keep track of all the different opinions and threads in an email conversation? When there’s complexity or emotion email stinks (and this has neither).
  2. Transporting files (Hello? Dropbox, or DropSend, or your network server). Using email to transport files just clogs up everyone’s database and uses up their storage. If you regularly need to move files amongst team members there are a variety of collaboration tools to choose from. If you are just sending a proposal to a client, well, go ahead.
  3. Conveying emotion (anger, disappointment, fear, excitement). This is best done face to face. Email is terrible at this. It’s almost always misunderstood, misconstrued and turns into a disaster. Please meet face to face, or at least call.
  4. Asking/answering questions that require nuanced or complex responses. In this case, pick up the phone. Most people aren’t that good at communicating nuance or complexity in writing. It requires a lot of concentration and time to create a good response. Most times when I see emails that ask for this they get short, unsatisfying replies.
  5. Short messages requiring an immediate response. I sometimes see people use email for real-time communication; but email is specifically asynchronous (we don’t both have to be there). There are great real-time communication systems (IM and SMS) so use them instead!

What do you think? What is email good for? What does it stink at?

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