Emerging Tech

Three ways to get your message read

Communication goes well beyond the simple act of hitting the Send button. With these three tips, Scott Lowe tries to help you make sure that the other side of the communication equation - receipt and understanding - also takes place.

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).

Proofread

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.

Summary

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.

About

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 w...

11 comments
r9567
r9567

This is a great composition of how to do the right thing. I do like the suggestion of putting the TO: addresses in last. One comment might also be that it give you time to reflect as you write who your audience is. Way too often we write emails and hit send out to distro-lists that have little to no relevance to most of the receipients. Great Column! Phil R.

mary.snere
mary.snere

Outstanding information. I send out enewsletters every other month and this will help me so much.

cln
cln

Within the body of the email I bold a person's name if I am asking them to do something, so hopefully they don't overlook it. Using the TO and CC boxes appropriately is very helpful. If you want someone in the distribution list to DO something, put their name in the TO box, not the CC box, the latter is intended to copy a person fyi. Personally, I route my incoming CC mail to a different folder from my incoming TO mail.

Wayne B
Wayne B

To avoid the inadvertent send/ Oh, I forgot to mention ... or I should have sent that to ..., I have a rule that delays the send for 60 seconds on all messages except those marked as important. This gives you a minute to catch most omissions.

hardymariana
hardymariana

Although I agree there should be some basic etiquette, I believe that too much time is given to emails nowadays. For example, how many minutes a day will we all get back if people stopped addressing emails? ("Dear so and so?", "Hi all", etc) I believe one of the biggest downfall of the email is that people still treat it as a letter or a memo. Good subject is the key to have your email read. If the only subject you can think of is "Hello" use another form of communication (IM, SMS, phone, etc), please.

ann.foster
ann.foster

Some years ago I worked on a project for a about 6 months in an Investment Bank and their email / communication rules were absolute: Pick up the phone - it is much quicker. Send only TO those who need to know/act Send only CC's for those that should know Subject Line MUST describe the email content succinctly (prefaced by Action/Information) Salutation - first character of name only to start and end the email. Otherwise say All, and sign off with regards,J. Keep content to less than a 3 or 4 line paragraph unless vital to include more. Another thing they had to facilitate excellent communication were 6 ten minute meeting rooms with coffee machine nearby. Meaning by the time you got coffees sorted, a room would be free or just about. When you went in you had to be clear about what you needed to know/tell the one or two people who needed to be together. Formal meeting rooms were for formal regular meetings, or you had to make the exception request for a larger meeting - usually for presentation / or significant purposes only. Otherwise it was up to you tell your invitee what your 10 minute meeting was for by phone or email. It was then up to the attendee to invite the person with the authority to action what you needed from the meeting if it wasn't that person. After that project I went directly to one working for Central Gov and their emails were pages long, that they always printed and stored. Meeting rooms were booked on a half or full day basis and the attendees were rarely less than 6.... they would then have a separate meeting on a different date about the actions from the meeting... What a difference!

SCCMSTL
SCCMSTL

This is such basic stuff for anyone who was educated prior to 1990. Required reading for those who graduated since 2000. The standards for written communication today have been significantly degraded by social networking and the hand-held devices uilized, to the degree that most written electronic communications leave much to be desired, and often incoherent.

makkh
makkh

Great points especially the last one: Proofread to eliminate typo errors and irrelevant info. Thanks for the tips.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I enjoyed your article and found all of the suggestions were on basis. You touched on this during your blog but I do think that people need to pay attention to who they are emailing. I teach college part time for a community college with multiple satellite locations. I work at one of the satellite locations and I am constantly getting emails regarding things that are happening at the main location that have nothing to do with me. These are emails like "parking lot being repaved." or ?muffins are available in room 117." It's not a huge issue it just makes my life a little crazier weeding through all of the useless emails. I think IT staffs need to educate their end users on when to use specific distribution lists.

Bobbymak
Bobbymak

Not only have written standards declined, so have basic reading skills! How many people --outside of technology-- actually read manuals??

SMparky
SMparky

All too often someone will respond to one question and forget about the rest. If I have questions I like to number them (bullet number). Also, be very careful hitting reply to all. I've seen embarrassing emails that were only intended to go to the sender, not to everyone.

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