Category Archives: Email Tips

Nagless Reminders — Get the Recipient to Respond On Time and Cut Through their Email Overload

ReminderHave you ever had to repeatedly nag someone to deliver on a commitment? What if it’s a commitment that is voluntary, i.e. you’re not the other person’s boss, and you cannot force them to do it? The classic case is trying to get your own boss to deliver on a commitment s/he made to you.

Imagine that you have asked David to review a report, and that he has responded by committing to a self-imposed deadline:

“I’m extremely busy right now, but I’ll have time to review your report on Monday.”

Where do you think your request will be at the beginning of next week? Like many managers, David suffers from chronic email overload, so by Monday it will probably be buried under a few hundred emails in his overflowing inbox. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that he’ll see it and be reminded that he committed to send his feedback.

You will therefore need to remind David of his commitment. But if you become too much of a nuisance, David might not deliver. So, how do you remind him in a nice way, without becoming too much of a nag?

All you need to do is say, “Thanks!”

However, it’s not what you say, it’s when you say it. Don’t reply to David’s message until the time arrives when he promised to work on it.

On Monday, your reply will arrive in David’s inbox, and will subtly remind him of his commitment at exactly the time that he planned to work on it:

“Thanks, David. today will be just in time to fix the document up before the final draft is due. I await your comments eagerly.”

I have used this tactic on many occasions, and have found it very successful. Sometimes you need to help those around you to be a little more productive!

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How to expand Outlook’s preview area with a single keystroke

Is your preview area squashed so narrow that you can’t comfortably read messages in Outlook’s main window? I’ll show you how you can use a single keystroke to expand it to read your messages, and then contract it again. This is an incredibly simple tip, but I’m amazed at how much it has changed my email experience.

By default, Outlook divides its main window into three sections: navigation pane, message list and the preview area. If you don’t have a wide screen, the preview area is squashed up against the right hand side, and is not really comfortable to use for reading messages — just for scanning them to see if they need to be opened in a separate window for more attention.

This frustrates me, as I like to use the main window for actually reading my messages. I’ve tried widening the preview area at the expense of narrowing the message list, but if the message list is too narrow, it will take up 2 lines for each message, i.e. show only half the number of messages as before — not good, since I also like to see as much of my inbox as possible in a single glance. Continue reading

The Speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace Approach

A recent white paper commissioned by Cisco about effective communication within virtual teams concludes:

‘Silence’ – or non-response to communication (email, voice mail, etc.) can be very damaging to virtual team effectiveness as it leads individuals to misattribute explanations for this silence.

Unfortunately, in many organizations the correct interpretation of silence is almost always along these lines:

“I’m too overloaded and haven’t even read your message.”

“I read your message, and intended to reply, but I did not get to it, and I don’t know if I ever will.”

“I’m not going to read your message — it does not look important enough. If it were really important, you would have phoned me.”

The major cause of silence is email overload — people just don’t get to all the messages that require their attention, or don’t manage to follow through with a timely response. So if you’re managing a virtual team, don’t rely on email as the main method of communication.

One of the best technical writers I’ve worked with took a rather cynical approach to non-responsiveness, under the guise of interpreting the silence optimistically. When sending a document draft out for review, she would write the following:

Please respond with corrections by (date). If I don’t receive any corrections from you, I’m going to assume that the attached draft meets your approval.

Obviously, this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach can backfire, but if used judiciously, it can produce very good results. I know, because it worked wonders on me!

Apart from this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach, what else can we do to improve our chances of getting a reply?

  • Craft your subject line well. It should summarize the message, not describe it. For example instead of “Annual Report, Draft 3”, write: “Need your comments on Annual Report by Wednesday.”
  • Use a rifle, not a shotgun: address a specific individual and not a group. The fewer people you address, the higher your chances of receiving a reply. (Here’s why.)
  • Include a clear call to action — tell the recipient exactly what you want or expect them to do, and make sure you do this near the top of the message, if not in the subject line itself.
  • If you’re writing to someone you don’t know, here’s a recent example of how to ensure they will not respond.

Email silences will still be inevitable. How can we minimize the resulting misunderstandings? How can we reduce the silences to a minimum?

And lastly, keep track of messages for which the replies you expect are overdue, and send out reminders if necessary.

Would you bet your life on email?

Email is critical part of company infrastructure and business processes, yet it is so structureless. This lack of structure is what makes it so ubiquitous — it’s easy to use it for everything. However, it can be extremely unreliable where strict business workflows must be followed.

If your life depended on it, would you choose email as your preferred method of communications? Too many things can go wrong, at both the sending and receiving ends, and I’m not talking about purely technical glitches.

How easy is it to accidentally delete someone from the list of recipients, or mistype someone’s name or address so that it goes to John Doe instead of John Smith?

Now compare this relative fragility with the potential damage it can cause. It boggles the mind. Here’s an example from earlier this year: Continue reading

Use Your Email Signature To Set Expectations

Bob Walsh includes the following line at the bottom of his email signature:

(I usually check email every few hours during the day.)

What a great idea! People who correspond with Bob now know that: 

  • he does not allow incoming email to disturb what he’s doing (he practices GTD), but
  • he’ll definitely read your message within a few hours.

I’m going to adopt this idea with a slight tweak, and add the following to my email signature:

I usually check email every couple of hours during the day, and I reply to most messages within 24 hours.

This won’t stop the odd idiot from calling up to ask if I’ve seen the email he just sent me, but I am confident that it will help to train the rest of my environment to interact with me more efficiently.

Don’t write to me in that tone of voice!

How good are you at guessing the tone of voice of the emails you receive? Can you tell when someone is being sarcastic, serious or is joking?

Most of us think we can do this about 90% of the time. However, according to psychologists Dr. Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) and Dr. Justin Kruger (New York University), who published their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (membership required to access), we get it wrong 50% of the time. Those are the same odds as tossing a coin. Continue reading

How quickly would you be fired for being stoned on pot at work?

Or to rephrase this, how quickly would you be fired for multi-tasking at work?

A 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London shows that people who allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by email and instant messaging perform slightly worse than those who are stoned on pot. Continue reading