This One Word Will Make Your Emails More Effective

Hints: It’s all about clarity

Email with a purpose — Pic by Stefan Cosma

Emails are a productivity killer.

That’s why messaging apps have become more mainstream now. However, many organizations out there are still using email as their primary communication tool. We cannot completely get rid of email; it’s a necessary business evil.

Rather than expecting email to disappear from the business world, simple practices can help your team uses it more efficiently.

The biggest problem with emails is that they confuse the recipient. Using one single word can drive clarity and alleviate some of the pain. Let me explain how.

Expectations Are the Issue, Not Emails

“Your inbox is a crowdsourced to-do list, full of tasks created by other people.” — Niklas Goeke

Tools like Slack, Glip or WhatsApp simplify information exchange. They are perfect for a world that craves for instant communication. But, when team members lack clarity — messaging apps can make things worse.

We believe that sharing is caring, but it’s actually the opposite. That’s the problem with team’s communication. Sharing things has become so easy that we push the “share” or “send” button without thinking.

Our expectations are the problem. Alexandra Samuels, the author of Work Smarter With Social Media, believes that email is ineffective because it’s rooted in old fashion expectations. We approach emails as a letter: we assume people will reply immediately upon receiving it.

But as Niklas Goeke wrote here, when you send an email you are adding a task to someone else’s to-do list. Reading your email and, most importantly, the action required creates more work for the recipient.

Why should the other person care about your email?

Communication is a two-way street. Write with a purpose. What are you expecting the recipient to do? How urgent or critical is your request? One single word can add clarity.

Use One Word to Categorize Emails

Managing emails is a very complex problem. Even the creator of “Inbox Zero” recognized his method was adding more fuel to the fire — people were becoming more stressed about emails.

Relevant email subjects are critical but not enough.

This tip is not evolutionary but very effective. Add one single word to your email subject to drive clarity. Categorizing your message will help recipients understand what’s expected of them — and how critical (or not) is for them to reply.

Here’s how the different categories could work:

“URGENT” — Something requiring immediate action or attention. Important to note that in the corporate world there’s a tendency to categorize everything as ‘urgent.’ If the recipient doesn’t intervene, the damage could quickly escalate.

“FEEDBACK” — Items requiring input, reaction or approval to advance a project. Without this person’s feedback, the project could get stuck.

“OPPORTUNITY” — Unexpected events presenting possibilities for the other person to do something. This category includes a way range of opportunities: training, partnerships, time-limited offers, etc.

“UPDATE” — Status report or latest information about a specific project. The frequency and depth of these updates need to be agreed upon the team members. Some people want to know everything; others like to share just vague headline. The team needs to establish a common practice on what and how to report. Contrary to most people beliefs, email updates are very effective; they can minimize other productivity killers: meetings.

“FYI” — Updates that don’t require the recipient to take any action. Important to note: emails shouldn’t be used to cover your back. So, before sending these types of emails, ask yourself: Do I really need to share this information? Will it help the other party or am I just cluttering his/her inbox?

“INSPIRATION” — Material that will provide tools, information, data or experiences to help the other person do a better job both as professional or as a manager. This is content that is important but not urgent like instructional videos, TED talks, or a recent research study. Both learning and being inspired play a key role, but shouldn’t become a distraction from taking care of things that need to happen now.

Just add one of those words (in CAPS) at the beginning of the subject. It will help recipients understand why they should care about your email.

I’ve helped many teams adopt this system — among other communication practices — and it creates an immediate positive effect.

Take my categories as a suggestion. Feel free to replace, reword or add others. Experiment with your team and see what resonates. Most importantly, use the test to develop a common email language — it will clarify expectations.

Whatever categories you end using, keep it SIMPLE.

The Nature of the Email Determine Expectations

Your team should also align on response time expected per each category.

Image: kind contribution by Luisa

To get you started, use the following suggestions as a base.

A — High Priority

“URGENT” and “FEEDBACK”

A response is critical to keep things moving forward. It should happen within the day of reception.

For things that are real emergencies — life or death situations — emailing is ineffective, call the person or meet in person instead.

B — Medium Priority

“OPPORTUNITY” and “UPDATE”

A response is needed within 2–4 days.

C — Low Priority

“FYI” and “INSPIRATION”

Responding is optional (or there’s no need to reply at all).

The nature of each will vary depending on the nature of your business. If you work in the creative industry or education, “INSPIRATION” will be more important than for other businesses. If you are managing emergencies or projects that move at a fast pace speed, “UPDATES” could easily become a High Priority.

Improving productivity is an on-going practice. Communication is the most frequent reason behind more team’s tensions. Adding some clarity to your emails could eliminate many day-to-day misunderstandings.

Have any questions about how to improve your team’s communication or productivity? Email me: stretch AT liberationist DOT org

But, please, remember to add that one word.

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