In almost all the management and communication workshops we conduct, it’s practically a guarantee that someone will bring up how they loathe email. The two major complaints are “too much email” and “emails that are too long.”
Written communication has always been a problem. Since actual words comprise only about 7% of communication (body language and voice tone make up the rest), email already has a lot going against it.
Jim DiSanza is a Leadership Development associate and a communications professor at Idaho State University. In his soon-to-be-released book, Management Communication, DiSanza says “E-mail is even more susceptible to misunderstanding than are business letters.” He points out that people spend a great deal of time learning how to format professional business letters. The fact that they’re on paper with a formal signature seems to lend them more credence.
“In contrast,” DiSanza points out, “the hurried nature of most e-mail writing and the ability to send them immediately, without need of signatures and envelopes, further reinforces the causal, almost conversational nature of the medium.”
Bingo. So how can the major complaints be addressed and yet maintain quality communication?
1. Too Much Email
This common complaint is usually caused by people being “copied” unnecessarily. Because email is so efficient, it’s easy to “CC” anyone who might be remotely related to a conversation. To make email more effective, senders have to do a little more work.
For example, if five core people are working on a project but fifteen other people are remotely involved, the fifteen may not need to receive every email about the project. Instead, someone from the five core people may be tasked with making a daily or a weekly summary (depending on the project) and sending that to the fifteen.
In essence, it takes a little more time for one person, but it saves oodles of time (and frustration) for many others.
Netscape’s News Editor, Cathryn Conroy, reporting on the Pew Internet and American Life Project in December of last year, says that those who receive 50 or more emails a day can spend up to four hours sorting and replying. When time is money, that can add up fast.
To increase email effectiveness, choose carefully whom you copy, and decide if some folks can ‘get by’ with a shorter, summarized email.
2. Email That Is Too Long
Several problems fall under the “too long” umbrella. First up is the run-on sentence look. This is the email that has one long paragraph stretching ten inches down the page. Recipients of these emails usually have to work to pull out the information.
A more effective approach is using shorter paragraphs. Consider the success of the newspaper USA Today. It has many short paragraphs – it’s an easy-to-read paper.
Also compare the books being published today versus the books printed even twenty years ago. Older books have much smaller type with no white space between the paragraphs. But research has shown that the human brain can absorb information much faster if the information is broken into “chunks.” Hence, look at today’s top selling books – lots of shorter paragraphs with plenty of white space between them.
The same formatting in emails (adding white space by using an extra ‘return/enter’ keystroke between paragraphs) makes email more effective.
What about Too Many Topics Covered?
One of the most effective ways I’ve seen to solve this complaint is by creating an “outline overview” at the beginning of long emails. Even medium-length emails benefit from this technique.
Here’s an example: In this Email:
- General problems using email communication
- Limiting email distribution lists
- Formatting emails
Then proceed with your narrative, being sure to include white space between paragraphs. You might even want to sub-title your paragraphs to give the reader a heads up that the topic has changed. This technique also helps if someone wants to read only one of the topics – he or she will be able to find the desired material much quicker.
If you’re one of the 11% who feel overwhelmed by email, or if you have any of the complaints listed above, spread this article around – making email more effective will probably make many people much happier.