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.

Image Copyright: tawhy / 123RF Stock Photo