How many email messages does the average employee get per day? Between listserv messages, all campus email messages and those messages that are sent directly to me, my inbox is generally filled to the brim and I know that many of my colleagues face the same inundation, including my executive peers. When I send a message - whether it's to the whole campus or to a group of people working on a project - I want to make sure that the important points get read while being able to provide enough detail to answer most questions that might arise. I'm a big believer in communicating once whenever possible and strive to avoid a constant back and forth. Further, in many messages, there are action items that need to be undertaken by either every member of the recipient list or individual members, so making sure that these action items aren't overlooked is also important to me. Finally, how often do you receive an email message that omits the subject line? Personally, I hate that. It makes future identification very difficult!
If an e-mail message even has the appearance of being long, it will just be skimmed or possibly even ignored, resulting in a follow up or dropped ball. While I don't advocate sending out book-length messages, I do believe that providing enough detail in the original message is important. Over time, I've learned some tricks - both ones I adopted on my own and learned from others - that have really helped to make sure that, at the very least, important points are understood, action items aren't missed, and I don't forget to include a subject line.
The order of things
Create the message in this order: Subject line, content, recipient list. In general, the last item that I fill out on a message is the recipient list and the first is the subject line. Why? By making sure I fill out the subject line first, I won't forget to add a subject. By waiting until the end to complete the recipient list, I avoid accidentally sending an incomplete email message. I'm sure we've all, at some point in our careers, hit the Enter key in the wrong place or clicked the Send button by mistake and sent out a half-done message quickly followed by the real message.
What's at the top of the message matters most
When I create a particularly important message that is of any substantial length, I don't leave it to the reader to identify the important points and sift through the message to look for action items, but I also don't cut the message down to something that would simply create more confusion and questions either. Instead, at the very top of the message, even before the "Dear so & so" line, I create two small bulleted lists entitled "Important points" and "Action items". Suppose the message I'm sending out regards planned maintenance downtime (a message I'll be sending early next week) and I want to make sure people understand what we're updating, why and what they need to do, if anything. The top of my message might look like this:
- Important points
- o Most IT services will be unavailable from 6:30 AM to noon on Monday, December 29.
- o E-mail services will not be affected.
- Action items
- o Turn off your computer before leaving for the holiday break.
- o Contact the IT Help Desk if this outage creates a conflict that was not apparent on the master calendar.
For the rest of the message, I'd let the campus know what we're updating, why it's important to update software and perform routine maintenance (remember, this is a college; everything we do is considered a learning experience), and how we chose the particular date and time (i.e. in consultation with the executive team).
Before clicking the Send button, at the very least, give your message a once over. Make sure that the recipient line includes the right people; make sure that there are no egregious errors and do a quick check of the facts. For example, is the 29th really the right date for the maintenance? Is the action items list complete?
This point should be automatic, but it's amazing how many fail to do this step. I will admit that, when I'm in a hurry, my own proofing isn't always perfect either. At one point over the summer, I sent out a message that had every fact correct and everything spelled correctly... except my name (Soctt). Unfortunately, the message in question was one asking people to be more careful about what they were sending to the campus.
The simple, brief bullet points let those that just want the details to get the details without having to wade through the whole message. After all, if someone really doesn't want to take the time to find what you want them to know, they probably won't, and your point will be lost on that person. The mantra I always try to keep in mind is this: "Communication implies receipt and understanding. Without these two items, communication did not take place." My act of simply sending a message is not communication unless I craft it in such a way as to be usable and understandable to the recipient.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.