Remote work makes email more vital, but it also magnifies email’s downsides. Make sure you bring your A game in order to lead effectively in this mode.
The struggles with email are familiar. Messages can be unclear, counterproductive threads ramble and confuse, and insensitive or misinterpreted comments can cause angst.
But there is an upside too. Email can keep people looped into important information, help organize work effectively, facilitate a response to a crisis, or even provide inspiration and excitement about a project, initiative, or some higher goal.
The trick, of course, is to avoid as much downside as possible while maximizing the benefits. These four tips will get you on the right track.
1. Clarity: Write to express, not to impress.
When you author an email to give a directive or make a request, it’s important that your message is clear. This is best done with simple and direct language.
Short words and sentences work best. And most adverbs and adjectives can be omitted. Often, they take away more than they add to a message.
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them―then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” ―Mark Twain
2. Focus: Say one thing
Saying exactly one thing is best.
Even if you need to convey lots of information or ask for something complex—boil it down to one point.
If you are providing lots of information about a project status, that is fine. But it ultimately needs to boil down to a bottom line status.
If you are asking for information, you may need to provide context or ask for a lot of variables to be considered, but the reader needs to know exactly what you want them to do.
Use multiple emails if you need to cover multiple topics.
“The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at a time.” —Mozart
3. Timing: When you send matters
Whether you are writing or responding, the timing of your message can make a big difference.
Is it better to announce news or dole out an assignment first thing in the morning or late in the day? One way to answer this is to consider when you might want to receive one of these messages.
When you think about it that way, you might shift from wanting to get something off your plate to the end of the day to wanting the recipient to get it when they are fresh, alert, and starting a new day.
The other part of timing to consider is when to respond in a thread. If you are first, you may influence the subsequent responses. If you wait for others, you will have the benefit of more information before you craft a response. Either option is valid, but you should consider which one might work best for each scenario.
“The time is not always now for everything.” ―Ava Richardson
4. Polite: Emailers are humans
Tips 1, 2, and 3 work because emails are a form of human communication. It’s good to keep that in mind as a driving force behind your entire approach to email as a leader.
While it can be tempting to skip over greetings, be abrupt, or even just sloppy— email is not a real-time conversation. It’s more like letter writing.
Maybe that seems a little overly formal in modern times when everything travels at the speed of light. The difference, however, is that the people on the other end are not live on the line with you. That makes a difference.
With the ability to give and get immediate feedback absent, it is difficult to correct for matters of nuance. It’s better to aim to get it right the first time.
A little extra time to edit for clarity, make sure the message is focused, and to consider the implications of timing are crucial. But perhaps even more so is the effort to make sure that the communication is polite and thoughtful too.
A little greeting that appreciates context, an embedded note of thanks, or a considerate tone open to feedback or suggestion goes a long way toward making people feel seen and included. And there is never a good reason to omit it.
“Treat everyone politely, even those rude to you; not because they are nice, but because you are.” —Jean Cherni