Get to the point: The art and science of emails

Email consumes our workdays. McKinsey reports that the average American employee spends 30 percent of their day (2.6 hours) dealing with email. That’s no way to live, no way to work. But email is a crucial platform for communications, despite the rise of app-based alternatives such as Slack, Skype and others.

So how do we use and consume email more effectively? Here are some tips and reminders.

1.     Don’t write a novel. I will admit, this is one of my pet peeves; that is why it’s #1.  Many workers tend to write at length about issues that would be more efficiently handled in face-to-face or on-the-phone meetings. Now, with more folks working from home, face-to-face will be a little more challenging.  The average time spent reading an email is 11 seconds and rising. Even short email of 100 words take 30 seconds to read. When the average person faces more than 100 emails in the inbox every day, that adds up. So, get to your point quickly and don’t overwrite. If you’re including background or have several questions about something, set them off with bullets. We’re accustomed to scanning digital correspondence and bullets help readers digest information more easily.

2.     Give context immediately. How often have you received an email that’s a thread with an unhelpful little “FYI” atop it? This technique forces you to spend minutes trying to figure out the substance of the thread. It’s inefficient. When you send such emails (they’re often necessary), make sure you begin by stating clearly and quickly why this thread is important to the reader and what are the required actions.

3.     Include a clear call to action. Don’t send emails just to send them. Make sure the recipient knows the point of the email, whether it’s to give background and schedule a follow-up call, direct someone to perform a task or request specific information in a set time period.  I have recently started to put at the end of my subject line – Action Required or Response Needed.  Surprisingly this has prompted a faster response from people and direct answers to actions or questions.

4.     Dedicate chunks of time to reviewing email. Most of us tend to have email open all workday, often with alerts set to “on.” This can become very distracting. We feel we have to address each incoming email and every alert and respond immediately. Truth is most people don’t expect an immediate response. Each interruption means several minutes of recovery time for a person to re-focus on the interrupted task. Dedicate one time slot in the morning – you pick the length – and one time slot in the afternoon to focus on your email. That’s it. This helps not only keep you focused on work tasks, but it will improve the quality of your email interactions because you’re completely engaged in those time periods.

5.     Respond! I can’t tell you how frustrating it is not to get responses on emails. It happens all the time, and there’s no excuse. We all get busy and honestly no one expects an immediate answer, but a simple response in a timely manner to let the sender know his/her email is not in your spam box or lost is just considerate.  How would you feel if you stood at a colleague’s desk and asked a question only to be met with silence? If you don’t have time in the moment to craft a response to an email, it’s best to say simply, “thank you for your email. I’ll respond shortly.” Or something to that effect. Then flag the email. I have a habit of going through my flagged emails at the end of the week, so I don’t forget to respond.

As some of you know, I’m a New Yorker. We’re blunt. We communicate honestly and openly. We don’t beat around the bush. I take the same approach with email. It’s part of the communications continuum.



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Michelle Clancy

President, Cayenne Global