How to Increase the Impact of Your Emails
CEO, Founder of The Granger Network
Much has been written on the topic of how to write better emails. And much of that advice, concerns the basics: correct grammar and spelling, thorough fact-checking, general avoidance of emojis, and, of course, the holy grail of email etiquette: keeping messages short and to the point. These are all important—albeit obvious—pointers.
I’d like to challenge the very way we view email in the first place. A simple shift in perspective can rescue us from thinking of email as a chore to be endured into seeing it as one of our most effective tools for achieving breakthroughs at work.
The fundamental misunderstanding is this: email isn’t information conveyance. Many of us think of email as a way to upload information into our colleagues’ brains. When it comes to quick and efficient communication, email truly has changed the game. But when we reduce email to solely information conveyance, we get into trouble. We relate to ourselves and our email recipients as machines giving and awaiting input: “I got the right information to the right person…my job is done here!”
Of course, we know better than that. The recipients of your emails are not machines; they’re real living human beings. We know from experience that when we sit down to our own email inboxes, we aren’t simply processing 1’s and 0’s as we read and write emails—we’re bringing our whole selves to that moment. Our current workload. Our moods. Our perspective.
Therefore, we’re never just ‘uploading information,’ we’re shepherding the project, the initiative, or the relationship into a future we’re committed to building. It follows that if an email is going to fulfill on your intention, we must take the recipient’s whole self into account. We must generate an email-reading experience that positions the recipient to take effective action. In this way, email is both an art and a science.
Here’s a three-question checklist designed to reorient us (and our emails) to make a greater impact. Try using this checklist before hitting ‘send’ on your next email.
Question 1 – Ask: What Mood Will This Email Generate?
It’s easier to cultivate a positive mood around a task or project when speaking with someone in-person. With a real live human across from us, we can pick up on body language, tone, and other important aspects of non-verbal communication. If our request isn’t sitting quite right with them, it’s easier for us to recognize there are some unproductive moods and assessments at play.
With email, the risk of the recipient slipping into a bad mood unnoticed, increases exponentially. A simple message like, “Marsha—where are we on the Seabrook account?” may seem harmless enough, but the terseness of the message could have Marsha reading all sorts of unsaid concerns in between the lines: “What does he mean, ‘Where are we on Seabrook?’ Is Seabrook urgent? I thought we had until the end of the month on that. But now he‘s acting like he needed this yesterday…am I in trouble…?”
You get the idea. I’m not saying we ought to litter our emails with exclamation points and smiley faces. But before we hit send, we should read our outgoing emails through the lens of moods: “Will this message elicit resignation, annoyance, anger? Or, will it elicit clarity, excitement, ambition?”
This little bit of care can go along way: “Hi Marsha, I’m emailing to see if you have an update on the Seabrook account. There’s no rush on this end, but I do want to make sure we are set up for success. I’ll be better able to schedule my review time if I have a sense of your game plan. Would it be workable for you to send me an update by the end of the week?” Or like this: “Hi Marsha, do we have an update on the Seabrook account? I’m growing concerned because we promised to get back to them by the end of the month, and my calendar is filling up with work for our other accounts. I’d love to know how I can support you in this assignment, so you can knock this presentation out of the park!”
Question 2 – Ask: What Context Does This Email Require?
The average office worker receives 121 emails per day. Information and requests and FYI’s barrage us at a relentless pace. And when these messages come at us without a clear context, it’s easy for them to either slip through the cracks or, more likely, fail to produce an action that addresses what’s actually important to us.
For example, maybe you fire off a request to your colleague saying: “Jim, can you consolidate the attached into a presentable PowerPoint by tomorrow EOD. Sorry for the rush here. Would be a huge help. Thanks.”
Well, okay, you conveyed the task itself. You technically asked for what you needed…but there’s so much context missing that would set up Jim to not only strike this item off of his to-do list, but to really deliver on what matters here.
So, what does matter to you here? Well, you need the presentation by the end of the week because you have a huge, unexpected opportunity to meet with a prospect on Monday. It’s critical that the meeting goes well in order to hit the company’s sales targets, and part of doing that is making a really good impression on them by putting your best foot forward.
That little bit of context might go a long way for Jim. Maybe he was feeling stressed or resentful about the last-minute request—now he’s more likely to feel lit up about playing an important role in helping the company and will be motivated to have the PowerPoint really sparkle. (People do want to feel like they are making a contribution, after all.)
More than that, Jim is now connected to the outcome of “making a good impression on the prospect,” as opposed to simply the action of “making the slides.” It’s not just about a specific task. It’s about achieving an overarching result that really matters. So many possibilities are born out of that shift in orientation, ones that you perhaps weren’t even thinking of! For example, maybe Jim has ideas about how to set up the conference room with snacks or flowers in a way that would really impress the client. This wouldn’t not be possible if Jim was narrowly focused on the PowerPoint. Giving a little more context in the email communication—in a way that points to the bigger outcome at stake—can go a long way.
Question 3 – Ask: Do I Really Need to Send This Email at All?
Sometimes the best strategy for effective email is…to not send the email in the first place. We all fall into the habit of rattling off emails. It may even make us feel good. “Look how productive I am! Look at all of this work I am doing!”
Sometimes, sending extraneous emails is a convenient ways to cover up our own insecurities. How often do we send unnecessary emails “seeking alignment” when we are really delaying or avoiding doing what we already know needs to be done? Or just as common: how often do we send an email instead of taking the plunge into a difficult conversation that needs to happen in person. Before hitting send, think: Is email the best way? Or is there a more direct, more uncomfortable, yet ultimately more effective way of addressing this need? If the latter, set up an agenda where you can effectively capture topics better reserved for in-person conversation, and skip the email altogether.
Shifting the way we do email is easier said than done. Old habits die hard and, considering how many hours a day we spend on email, our habits in this domain are likely deeply ingrained. (My team may find it ironic that I have shared these tips with you, considering how often I don’t take my own advice!) But remember—it’s a process. What can be really helpful in this regard is to engage your colleagues in adopting these (and other) good habits around email, as a way of introducing some accountability around it. Just keep reminding yourselves that a healthier email culture is a critical step towards a healthier organizational culture.