Writing effective e-mails V: Providing clear context

If you are writing to someone you do not correspond with regularly, you need to make sure to provide them with context right at the start. They may not know (or remember) who you are. Even if they recall your name, they may not be aware of the team, department, or company for which you are working. If you’ve corresponded a long while before, but you’re one of hundreds or thousands of people in their network, then they will likely not remember anything about your previous correspondence.

In two or three sentences, you can fix that. Remind them exactly who you are and what you do for them (or vice versa). Likewise, make sure to provide the who, what, when, where, why, and how of what you are asking in the message. If you don’t make it clear who has to do what, no-one will do it (or take the blame), especially when you’re mailing a group. If you don’t say why, no-one will care about your request (without the why, you’re just giving orders!). You should also include a section addressing why they should care about the issue you are addressing. If your reader is trying to juggle 15 different projects, you need to give them a reason to pay attention to you right now when they could be working on something that (for them at least) is more important.

It’s also really important to include any previous communication that may be relevant. If there was previous e-mail correspondence that was relevant to the subject you are discussing now, quote the e-mail trail at the bottom of the message. Likewise, if you had a phone call, remind them of the date and relevant details of the call to jog their memory. Even better, you hopefully e-mailed them these details at the time of the call (see previous post on E-mail as evidence) so you can just forward that.

What many do is to say “Please do ABC as I requested in my earlier e-mail.” However, if you’re not forwarding that e-mail with the current one, then you’re expecting them to dig it out… if they still have it. Ask yourself, is that going to make them more or less likely to do what you ask? Likewise, if you are referring to documents to be read or otherwise worked on, it helps include them (or the links to them) every time you ask about them.

This is true even if it’s a new situation that’s arisen, not an old one. For example, I often get students who write to me to tell me that something is wrong with their grade or the college online submission system. Instead of telling me exactly what is wrong and sending me a link to the page they had a problem with, the steps they took that lead to the problem, and a screenshot of the problem they encountered, they will simply tell me that they could not submit. Of course, there’s nothing I can do but write back and ask them to send me the details. Even if I respond within 48h, that means it will probably be five working days before I can sort out the problem and get back to the student.

Taking the very simple precaution of providing all the information in the first shot make it much more likely that you will get a response quickly. This way, you are not relying on the other person to research the issue before they reply. It also denies them the opportunity to ignore your e-mail, wait a week, and then ask for the details that you didn’t provide. It also shows them that you understand they are juggling other things and you value their time. This will be appreciated.

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Writing effective e-mails IV: Manners, flames, and diplomacy

There are lots of ways to annoy people in an e-mail. One we have already discussed is not writing in a formal-enough tone, or not calling them by their appropriate name or title, or not using capital letters. Another one involves SHOUTING BY WRITING IN ALL CAPITALS, or using emoticons when it’s not appropriate.

Yet another is to prioritize yourself over everything else that may be going on in the other person’s life. When you mark an e-mail as urgent, you are saying that they should stop everything and read/act on that e-mail. You must be sure that this is warranted before you expect that of your recipient. What’s urgent to you may not be urgent to them, and if you continually send them “urgent” messages they will start ignoring them and thinking less of you (think The Boy Who Cried Wolf).

However, one of the most dangerous things you can do in an e-mail is to write a flame: that is, to express anger over something the person who you’re writing to has done, the way they’ve behaved, or something that they’ve written in an e-mail.

Never write a real e-mail when you’re angry. Instead, start by writing exactly what you feel like saying to the person in question, but in some other kind of document, or in an e-mail with no recipient or with you as the recipient. Get your emotions out!

Now, put that e-mail aside and use a different part of your brain. What is the problem here? How can you make progress? Is the relationship with this person salvageable? What do you want to happen? How can you turn what you want into something that also serves the other person? Do you think they’re misunderstanding something and that being clearer and explaining your reasoning for your own actions will help? Now, write the e-mail focussing purely on the ends you would like to achieve, not on blame or recrimination or anger.

The one thing to be careful of here is not to let your self be bullied. If you defer to someone who has behaved inappropriately (that is, if you don’t make clear that you found their behaviour unacceptable) then some people will take that as a signal that they can treat as badly as they like. So while you shouldn’t write an angry e-mail, you should still be clear (if brief) about the rights and wrongs. Do this in as factual a way as possible and, even if the person you are writing to did do something wrong, don’t assume they intended to do wrong. In other words, write the e-mail as if you are giving them the benefit of the doubt about what has happened in the past, while being clear about what needs to happen in the future, and why.

For instance, instead of saying, “Your e-mail is insulting and offensive.” You might end up saying something like, “You attributed various motives to my actions which make it clear that you don’t fully understand the situation here. Let me clarify… [explanation]. I understand that, not being in full possession of the facts, you found the situation frustrating, but I would appreciate it if – should you have similar concerns in future – you would ask rather than assume that I or a member of my team are somehow behaving improperly. We are working very hard on your behalf, and find it demotivating when you imply otherwise.” In other words, you’re still making clear the e-mail was inappropriate, but you’re not getting emotional about it. Your lack of emotion should help bring down the level of emotion on the other side: at least it will if they are acting in good faith.

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Writing effective e-mails III: Making decisions

One frustration that we all have at one time or another is that we need someone to make a decision and they don’t do it in time for us to get our work done. There are ways you can use e-mail to help you to break this bottleneck.

The first tactic you can use is suited to situations where you feel that the decision to be made is obvious/uncontroversial, but it needs to be signed off by your boss, the client, whoever. Wait until you’ve already given the person sufficient time and reminders inform you of their decision, and they haven’t done so: how long will depend on the circumstance… it could be anything from weeks or months to hours or even minutes. When you’re at crunch point, then you can send them what I call an IF/THEN e-mail. Here you explain again what decision needs to be made, explain why you think the obvious/non-controversial decision is correct, and then say at the end, “If I do not hear from you by [achievable date] I will assume you are happy with this and do [obvious option].”

What if the decision is not obvious, or – if it is – you’re not in possession of enough of the relevant facts to make the decision? In that case, you need to send another an IF/THEN e-mail and make clear the consequences of a decision not being taken in a particular timeframe. For instance, you might, again, outline what you know about the decision to be taken and the issues surrounding it. Then you might explain how the lack of a decision in this area is holding back work in a particular area. Finally you explain, “If we do not have a decision from you by [achievable date], then [there is no way we can meet your deadline; we will have to charge you more to expedite phase 3 of the project; we will have to complete the project without this feature incorporated; or… whatever else applies].”

There are two things to note here. First, it’s really important that you give the client/boss/whoever plenty of time and reminders to make their decision naturally before you go ahead and start using these tactics, as some people will feel like they’re being backed into a corner and will not like you for it. However, better that than unnecessary delays. Second, you need to leave yourself enough time so that – even if they miss your first deadline – you can send them an IF/THEN e-mail that they can achievably react to in the time available.

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Writing effective e-mails II: E-mail as evidence

E-mail messages can do a lot for you if you write them properly (and can get you into trouble if you don’t). In particular, they can document your work and your relationship with your teammates in a way that will prevent them (or your boss) for blaming you for others’ failures later.

If you need something from a colleague that is critical for your own work, make sure to say this in your e-mail request. Explain exactly what will happen and why if they fail to do what you ask. Will it mean a missed deadline? Will it cost the company money? Will it annoy the client? Also, explain why it’s not possible to get the information (or whatever it is you need) from elsewhere.

Of course, if you’re in the situation where someone seems to be continually ignoring your e-mails it could be that a phone call or face-to-face meeting would be more productive. Your colleague might be waiting for someone else in their team to give them what they need, or there may be politics or some kind of reorganisation within their team that you don’t know about. (You’d be amazed how often it happens that people are reassigned from one team/project to another without any of their colleagues in other teams being told!). There may also be more difficult issues: illness, stress, overwork, depression, bereavement. Once you understand the problem you may be better able to work around it.

Highlighting non-responsiveness

Though there may be a good reason for the radio silence, some people are just lazy or incompetent (or both), and you will likely need some strategies to deal with them.

If the colleague is repeatedly failing to deliver, you might copy in or blind copy in (cc or bcc) a boss or other team member. If you haven’t used bcc before, people listed in the bcc line to receive the message, but without their name appearing in the message header that the receiver sees. The receiver does see people copied in on the cc line. Note that people in the bcc line will not see any reply that your correspondent sends.

The advantage of using cc is that the person that you are sending to knows that someone else has seen what that you’ve asked. So, for instance, if you cc someone’s boss on an e-mail where you point out you’ve asked for things three times, quoting your previous requests in the e-mail so that it’s completely evidenced, then that person knows that they cannot claim to their boss that they didn’t know what you were waiting for. This should put pressure on them to do what you are asking.

On the other hand, bcc is good for when you have someone whose unreasonable behaviour you want to show to others, without risking alienating them by letting them know you’re doing. This can be good when you are worried about a situation deteriorating and want to keep (for instance) your boss in the loop so that they can step in if things go too far.

Keeping a record

Another thing that e-mail can do is to act as an archive of decisions made in meetings or calls. So, for instance, if you have a casual meeting with a colleague and they say they will do something for you by a given date then you should immediately send them an e-mail thanking them for their help, and making clear what they have agreed to, why, and by when. (Likewise, it’s good practice to do this if you’ve promised to do something for them.) This is not only a useful record for you, but it makes it easier for the person you are writing to: they now have the full details of what you wanted and a deadline so that they can put it into their to-do lists.

Getting into the habit of writing-up meetings as e-mails is a good practice. It means that – if you have to deal with someone who habitually says one thing and does another – you have evidence of that. One way of getting people to passively endorse your e-mail record of a meeting is to add some wording to the following effect: “This is my understanding of our meeting, but please do get in touch immediately if there is anything that I have missed or got wrong.” This way, in the absence of any response, your e-mail will stand as an accurate reflection of what was said.

Sometimes, a bigger problem than recording decisions is getting people to make them in the first place. I’m going to tackle that thorny issue specifically in the next post.

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Writing effective e-mails I: Why are you writing?

In the world of work, e-mail messages are now formal documents. Based on an e-mail, a contract may be won or lost (or its terms altered), a team may be strengthened or shattered, a project may be furthered or set back. Nevertheless most people (not just students) don’t take e-mail seriously enough. We often ask colleagues to do things, report on our progress, and make requests for information by e-mail. If we fail to do this clearly, our colleagues will not do what we want, recognize our progress, or give us the information we need.

The first question to ask yourself before you start is whether or not you should actually write (or whether there is some other kind of action you should take or communication you should try). Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Requesting information

First, ask yourself whether you have really tried to find that information yourself. You should not be writing to a supervisor, client, or colleague to ask them to give you information they have already provided or to explain something to you that you could easily look up. If you have really struggled to search your e-mail and check both internal and external electronic resources – and you still cannot find the information – you should ask someone in your immediate team if they can point you to the right source before you start bothering people from outside.

If you’ve been through all that and still can’t find what you need, it’s good practice to explain the steps you have taken and the places you have looked so far. This will give you instant credibility with the person you’re contacting. They’ll know you are serious and worthy of helping. Without this, you will give the impression that you think your time is more valuable than theirs. This shows disrespect and will lose you good will.

This general practice – doing your homework before asking for help – is the hallmark of a professional. There is nothing more frustrating than a supplier, employee, or colleague who is too lazy to do their own work. The added bonus is that, when you do have to ask others for their expertise, you know are getting the most out of them.

General discussions

E-mail can be a great medium for imparting knowledge or instructions, relaying deadlines, asking quick questions and clarifying job specifications. However, it is a very poor medium for brainstorming. If you want to hammer out the approach to a project, who is doing what, subtleties and ramifications, e-mail is not the way to do it. Depending on the kind of project and the type of team, better options are likely to be face-to-face meetings, video meetings, voice/screen calls, or online discussion channels (such as Slack) and collaborative documents. You would use e-mail to organize the meeting and prepare the participants for the issues to be discussed, rather than use e-mail to explore them.

Sensitive discussions

E-mail is also likely to be a a poor choice if there are politics or personality conflicts involved: at least at the beginning. To have an honest, perhaps difficult, discussion, it may be better to speak in person. People are more likely to tell you the truth if they do not have to put it into writing. If you need a record of any specifics, you can always write that up from your notes and put that into e-mail later.

In my next post I’m going to expand on this last point: how to think of e-mail as ongoing documentation of a working relationship.

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Book launched

It’s been a busy few weeks. The book was launched last Monday at UCL: really appreciated all the enthusiasm of past and present students and colleagues. Also wrote a short piece about why the Theranos scandal could have been avoided if more people had asked the right questions, and a blog post for the Engineering Professors Council on how we can teach students how to do better research.

I’ll hopefully be adding material here on a regular basis: I’ll highlight new stuff on the blog but also add the links to the relevant resources pages. Stay tuned!