Hopefully you’re not spending Thanksgiving polishing up on email writing skills, but let’s be honest about one thing. If I had to make a list of “things vaguely related to work that I am thankful for,” you know what wouldn’t make that list? The email writing skills of most people, which are squarely in the toilet.
EMail is essentially a travesty at this point. A couple of the core problems:
- People just ignore the ones they don’t want to deal with, halting projects
- Impossible to infer tone most of the time
- Often low-context slop fests
- Really just a reflection of your existing hierarchy
Now let’s place a dollop of crap atop this pie. Almost no one has any email writing skills. You usually get emails that fall into one of two categories:
- Low or no context: This is a short email that flies in — “reaction” as opposed to “response” — where you have absolutely no idea what’s happening. Usually this type of email is telling you to do something, or find something, but you have no backstory on what is happening. “Check with David on P&L thx…” You don’t know any David, though.
- Elaborate and meandering: These are long emails. You look at them initially and think “Oh, cool. This will probably be pretty detailed.” In reality, it’s basic stream of consciousness from the sender — he/she is totally unclear on what they want, and mostly just talking to themselves and typing. The call-to-action (what you need to do) is buried somewhere in the bottom 1/4. You may never find it.
There are other types of emails, but I’d say those are the “big two” buckets. It all comes from a drastic lack of email writing skills. Can we fix this? Maybe we can.
Email writing skills: Why did they get so bad?
Same reason social media sucks a lot and is too aggressive. Email isn’t face-to-face. People fire stuff off and they forget another person is on the other end. Usually it works like this. Your own boss is on your ass about some number, metric, target, or deliverable. You get an email from someone at your level or below you, and they seem behind on the thing your boss is crushing you about. So you’re pissed. You fire off a dick-ish email to that subordinate, and you forget they have feelings and backstories too. So now they are upset, and will probably work a lot less hard, and you’re pissed and feel like you have to carry them. If you just dealt with them face-to-face, a lot of these problems would be prevented.
Now yes, they may be a remote employee. In that case, maybe call them? Or offer to get on Skype or Hangouts? Facial reading means a lot.
Here’s the dirty little secret of most work, though: technology is a way for managers to hide, not be more proactive. Managers are often uncomfortable managing others. They want to hit their own targets and get their bonus, etc. Organic feedback? ** Spits on floor ** Isn’t that a HR thing? Email is fun, though. It’s a way to hide and not really deal with issues. (This is why your balance sheet isn’t as healthy as it could be.)
Combine all that with “most people can’t write well in the first place” and “managers are often cowards” and you have a decline in email writing skills.
Email writing skills: How do we make them better?
Corporate life tends to deify the military, and the military need to write emails with precision. So let’s copy them on email writing skills, right? Here’s an article called “How to write emails with military-like precision.” Cool! Let’s get to the sweet part:
2. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). Military professionals lead their emails with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF. (Yes, being the military, there is an acronym for everything.) It declares the purpose of the email and action required. The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader.
I would get down on my knees and pray if I ever received a BLUF email. A normal email is something like this:
No context no context hey who are you oh a warm body right i need that hey no context no context go do this thing for me
A BLUF email would look like this:
Hey, I need you to find the P&L from Dave Simmers in Operations, who is on the third floor of HQ. He’ll know what’s up. Ask him for any context. Thank you so much.
BLUF. Bottom line up front. Embrace this and improve your email writing skills.
Email writing skills: What would most managers probably do?
The same shit they always do — “That’s not how we do things here!” coupled with crippling the company’s revenue streams hourly.
The most amazing thing (to me) about email is this. A lot of people I’ve worked with will spend their entire day on it. They are totally slaves to it. Yet, when you talk to them, they say “It’s not that important. It’s not where real business is getting done.” OK. So where is real business getting done? They’ll say “meetings” or “networking.” Really, huh? Tell me the last time you attended a meeting where everyone was prepared. Let me give you a hint: you’ve probably never attended a meeting like that. That’s a true “unicorn” concept.
If you’re going to insist that other people check and respond to your emails (as most managers do), then you need to improve your own email writing skills. Make them easier to understand, process, and act on. Why not take a page from the military to help?
What else might you add on email writing skills?