There are ways to email people so things get done, and ways to email people so things stall, backtrack or get awkwardly ignored forever.
The productive emailer accepts one thing about the people she emails: They are all busy.
And when people are busy doing old things, they get lazy about taking on new ones.
So how do you write your emails so busy people actually do what you think they ought to do?
You make it as hard as possible for them to avoid it.
This applies to coordinating colleagues, scheduling get-togethers, wrangling volunteers or just asking friends for a favor.
As a follow-up to my 15 habits of a bad networker, here are 10 habits of an unproductive emailer. In other words, don’t do these things.
1. Send everyone’s tasks to everyone. Think of group emailing as diluted emailing. For every address you add to the “To” field, each recipient divides their responsibility for the email’s content by one more. As a colleague put it to me recently, the recipients “see the group email and think it doesn’t apply to them.” Send task-related emails to as few people as possible. Ideally, just one. Afraid someone won’t notice you’re emailing just him? Add his name to the subject line. That should get his attention.
2. Keep it in email. It is so much harder to make a call than it is to write an email. You have to disrupt someone’s day and command all her attention — not to mention yours. But some email discussions don’t progress unless they’re brought into live conversation, and any attempt to revive them via email just slows your momentum and frustrates everyone. Find the phone number in that email signature and use it. You’ll be glad you did.
3. Keep it in one thread. It’s the tyranny of the email thread: People like that the discussion is all in one place, so they bring up significant new tasks and questions that people can later say they never saw or never noticed. Productivity trumps cohesion. You need tools like the subject line and the recipients list to put tasks and responsibilities front and center. Start a new thread to use those tools effectively.
4. Fudge the subject line. This should be obvious. Subject lines are like headlines, and bad headlines get ignored by busy people. As a rule, write your subject lines so they parallel the content of the email. If your email is asking someone to do something, so should your subject line: “Can you … ?” The more accurately you sum up the task’s urgency in the subject line, the more likely your recipient — busy as he is — will see it, click it and respond.
5. Cram it all in. If you follow the rule above and find yourself with a subject line so long you have to take a breath to say it, you need to split your email up. Too often now I’ve waited for an answer from someone who never read far enough down my email to see my fourth question. Busy people see one major ask and think the rest is just details. Make sure they don’t skip the meat of a message. Give it to them in chunks.
6. Leave out the first step. Remember how I said busy people are lazy? One of the silliest ways this laziness presents itself is when people delay a task or ignore it because they have to think for more than 5 seconds about how to begin doing it. Is there a link they need to get started? A document? Take ten seconds to point them to it and they have less reason to put off the task.
7. Invite nitpicking. Admit it: Sometimes you delay having to do a task sent to you via email by replying to the sender with a question about how to do it. Protect your emails from this classic stall by suggesting a first step (see above) and then asking if people have everything they need to get cracking. That puts the onus on them to anticipate any hold ups or get to work.
8. Make them click away. Got a busy person’s attention? Keep it. As much as possible, put whatever materials they need to work with in the body of your email. NEVER EVER tell recipients to open an attachment just to find out what they need to do. And if you really want them to come to your party/reply to your prompt/answer your questions, avoid using a third-party service that’s going to make them go off-site to do it. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make people flag the task to do “later.”
9. Skip the deadline. Busy people don’t take on a task if there are no consequences. A salary, a reputation or a standing within a group are often enough to make them want to do it, but a deadline turns an intention into action. Don’t really have a deadline? Make one up! Or hint at one with some handy phrasing: “I’ll check in with you on this tomorrow.”
10. Take work for granted. Being busy is tough, and we’re all doing our best to stay caught up. So if someone takes the time to do something for you, don’t forget to say thanks. A little acknowledgment goes a long way, especially when you draft that next task-related email.