How to Turn Email from a Time Waster into a Time Saver

If you’ve ever timed yourself replying, in reasonable detail, to an email, you’ll know that it takes a long time. No doubt, longer than picking up the phone and calling the recipient to communicate the same message. In fact, I would suggest it can take far longer – up to three or four times as long – so why do we do it?

I think we will all agree the main purposes behind email is to ensure you’re communicating the right message, and that it gets received. In the act of emailing you collect and structure your thoughts and have the opportunity to play out instinctive, or ‘gut’ responses by seeing them in black and white first. Likewise, having a written version of your response is something for the recipient to access whenever, wherever, allowing them to refer back. Additionally, emails can avert misunderstandings taken from a quick phone call. In some ways, you could argue you may get a better result, so it’s worth the time.

But what can you do to make it better?

Employ military precision

Kabir Sehgal writes, in a recent HBR article, about the benefits of a well formatted email. A military veteran, he argues that the difference between a well written and poorly written email can be as much as ‘mission accomplished’ or ‘mission failure’. He suggests some really useful points we can all learn from in order to maximise the benefits from email.

Use your subject line to communicate the actions required

Sehgal suggests you should use your subject line to quickly draw the reader to the action required, for example, a ‘RESPONSE’, ‘REQUEST’ or “APPROVAL’, or any other sort of key action. By doing this, even if the reader clicks in and out of the email, the presence of the subject line in one’s inbox demands action. It also serves the purpose of clarifying the purpose of the email straight away, rather than leaving the reader to wonder ‘how’ important it is to read and/or action immediately.

Be clear, concise and keep it short

Ever noticed when your CEO sends an email to you looking for your opinion on a subject, he or she does not say, ‘It would be great if you could send me an email with your opinion on this.”, they will likely say something much more to the point, like “Thoughts?”. Likewise, Sehgal argues that you too should use language economically, and also try to keep your email to one window pane. Basic rule of thumb: if you have to scroll, it’s probably too long.

However, this one should be taken with a degree of caution. Too economic with words and the tone could come across all wrong – you don’t want to appear curt, overly demanding, or impolite. Make sure all the requisite niceties like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are retained!

Use formatting to call out key messages

It’s easy to fall into the trap of a meandering paragraph, or long sentences as you type out your thoughts. Think about how to draw attention to key points. Use bold, bullet points and paragraphs to make the email digestible and easy on the eye. Just as a well formatted website draws you to key points, so will an email. If you’re attaching documents, make sure they’re signalled clearly in the body of the email – or use links to enable the reader to click through in real time as they are reading through.

Above all, consider if email is the right medium for your message. Often, even if communicated precisely, messages can be misconstrued via email. Actions, or requests for information, may be straight forward, but don’t be tempted to use email as a crutch for conversations that should be held at best face to face, or at least over the phone. For example, negative feedback may come across as being far harsher over email than face to face, and does not give the person face time to respond, or present their side of the story. Be aware, and pick up the phone as your first protocol!

Over and out.

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