Email Effectiveness

I’m old enough to remember life before “Smart” Phones, Cell Phones, PDAs, and Email.  Heck, I still remember the smell of the mimeograph machine when I was in elementary school.  Today I have a “Smart” phone; you know part mobile phone, part PDA, part computer, and it contains everything about your day-to-day life; including pictures of the kids.  Now I’m am reachable 24x7x365 (unless I turn the sucker off) and I find myself doing emails just about anywhere: at the airport; from the house before I leave for the office; nights; weekends; on vacation (unless I go to some remote spot that has no mobile phone service, my favorite type of vacation).  Despite all this “communication” I am amazed at the fact that we do not seem to be significantly more effective than we are. 

I feel there are two key reasons we often do not see substantial improvements:

1)      Email is used as a substitute for what should be a live conversation or meeting (not that I want any more meetings);

2)      Emails are often incomplete or lead to misunderstandings.

Substitute for Live Conversation:  One way I try to get through my email faster is to look for email chains.  I can’t believe how many times I see chains that are 5 to 10 emails long.  Once I look at the chain it is clear that either the topic is too complex for email or there is a disconnect between two or more parties on the email.  At this point I am either picking up the phone to talk to someone or chiming in as the manager saying to kill the email and meet live.  This doesn’t need to be another hour long meeting; often the issue is cleared up with a five minute phone call.  If the topic is complex enough to warrant a one hour meeting then it is better to have the meeting up front than wait for a failure and have to manage a one week slip because two people who thought they understood each other didn’t.

Email Misunderstandings: It happens every day, someone sends out an email that says what the writer thinks is straight forward, complete, and non-confrontational.  The next thing you know you receive a “Flamogram” back IN ALL CAPS.  You naturally think “How could that idiot think that?” and the war of words has begun.  I learned a valuable lesson from a foreign customer who is a native speaker of English.  He looked at me one day and said “It’s a shame that we are separated by a common language.”  In other words, at the root of many of our misunderstandings was the fact that English is not a precise language.  This is especially true when you are communicating via email (even more so internationally) because words can have multiple meanings and we all tend to use colloquialisms from time to time. 

Thoughts for email communications:  I’m no email etiquette expert but the following have helped me.

  • Consider your audience and what they may be thinking as they read the email.
  • Pick your words carefully; try to avoid colloquialisms or words with double meanings.
  • Remember the only voice the reader hears is the voice in their head.  If the topic is likely to induce conflict then they will likely have a negative response.  In this case you are probably better off picking up the phone.
  • You don’t need to use CAPS all the time.  In fact, you should probably never use all caps since most people interpret it as yelling; which, from my perspective, does not have a place in any professional organization.
  • Consider picking up the phone more frequently

In closing keep the email chains short and the lines of verbal communication open and active.

Ed Gaeta


3 thoughts on “Email Effectiveness”

  1. User Avatar

    Ed, I think you and I may have been separated at birth. I’m normally a contrarian but agree with you on just about everything.

    There’s a potential generational gap too when it comes to communication, I wrote about an article in the March 2007 edition of PM Network here. In it I re-live my experience when a seasoned veteran gave me a life lesson about communication, and some of the mishaps that can happen with email and other channels.

    Josh Nankivel

  2. User Avatar

    It’s actually amazing of how many people in my office use e-mail, instead of picking up the phone or walking over to the other person’s desk. This can cut down quite a bit on misunderstandings.

    But then if it’s an important message that you are trying to convey, it’s a good idea to keep a record of it, just in case the person comes back to you and says that they didn’t ask you to do something. At least you have proof of what they mentioned in the e-mail.


    Richard Rinyai

  3. User Avatar

    Ah, sign me up for a “no thank you helping” of email! Kids are sometimes required to eat things they don’t like, but just a little bit, a “no thank you” portion, just a little bit. Like many people, I rely on email. But I personally find it a sub-optimal mechanism for communicating, and have recently had several experiences just like you described in your blog. Email is totally overused in our society. A phone call provides a richness in vocal tone and nuance of meaning that email doesn’t offer. Make my email an extra small portion, please! – Kimberly Wiefling, Author, Scrappy Project Management

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