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To Email, Or Not To Email?

My wife said to me on Sunday morning over breakfast, “How did anyone survive before email?”  I spluttered and burst into a slightly derisive laugh.  The laugh was because it made me think that the opposite is true. Most people who I train are completely overwhelmed by their emails.  They take up so much time and thinking space that it is choking their ability to work.

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One study suggests that people spend up to 13 hours a week reading and responding to emails.
This is pretty much two days a week, a huge proportion of the work life.
A lot of emails are pointless and unhelpful but they clog the sight of the important ones.  I run a business writing course, on how to write effectively and use the right kind of language and structure.  Essentially the message is also to think about how to use emails well.  Email became so useful because it gives you the chance to send information, documents, and other sorts of communication to one or lots of people at the same time.  The most commonly cited reason to use email is because it keeps a written record of what has been said.  This leads to hugely long email chains bouncing around many people.
They are also free and make the sender feel like they are getting things done.  People manage their inboxes like a to do list and once the email has been sent then it is off their desk and onto someone else’s.
Along with long meetings and conference calls that people don’t pay attention to; emails are, I think, the biggest drag on people’s productive time.  One lady said today that she attends meetings from 9.30am – 5pm most days and so it is the evening when she has to deal with the emails that have come in during the day.  I asked her when she gets to do her job!  People are not email churning machines.  So what can we do?
There have already been thousands of books and blogs published about how to be more efficient with email and time management.  And I will not contribute to this massive area.  Just some observations based on what I have seen.
So many things that need to be said, could be said face to face or over the phone.  So if you sit near someone then maybe going and talking to them could be so much more efficient for both of you.
It is very easy to write an email, especially from a mobile device.  But the way you read it in your head, may not be the way that the receiver reads it.  They may put different emphasis on different words and infer very different meaning. There is no tone in email.  Even though you may think that you have been ‘Captain Clarity’; then when you send it, it explodes and sparks a string of conversation that fills lots of people’s’ time.   Anything that could be open to interpretation is not worth putting in an email.
When I sit down to write an email I use the 5 Ws to work out what I am trying to say.  What, why, who, when and where.  Any good journalist will usually include all of this information in their first paragraph.  It is clear in the first section what the email is all about and what the reader needs to know.
Academic writing always emphasises writing the background, method, process, and finally, any conclusions.  However an email doesn’t need to be structured that way.  A principle of putting the critical information at the top of the email in one microstatement is a very useful technique.   The reader should be able to get the gist of exactly what the email is all about in the first moment of reading it.   Then easily be able to take in the information after that. They can make the decision whether it is relevant to them to read and what they need to do with it.
Whether to Do it, Dump it, Defer it or Delegate it should be something that is an easy decision because you have clearly planned what you want to say and how to say it best with the reader at the heart of the email.

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