Getting people to actually read email messages.
— Senior Advisor
Right. How can you advise people who refuse to read your advice, let alone take it?
Maybe this challenge is one of those rare occasions when you can blame the messenger. Meaning email.
Email has been a victim of its own success. It’s so cheap, so fast, and so convenient that it has become the default method of communication. And, even though our private lives have been drifting toward social, our work lives still revolve around email.
The sheer volume of incoming email makes it impossible for most people to give each message their full and undivided attention. Which means they have to pick and choose. Which means some messages don’t get the attention they deserve. And others get none at all.
So, what if it’s your email that keeps getting shuffled to the bottom of the pile? What if the multitasking eye of your audience skips over important details? What can you do about it?
You could always ask people why they didn’t read the last email you sent. And find out what might have made it easier for them to read and absorb. If there’s a hidden obstacle unique to you and your crowd, asking is the best way to uncover it.
But, if you’re like most people, your coworkers have a simple set of preferences for opening and reading email. Not everyone knows of his preferences (or is willing to admit to them), but in a time crunch, those hard-wired habits rule.
Most people prefer:
- Personal emails to mass mailings,
- Short to long,
- Relevant to distracting.
Not exactly earth-shattering, is it?
But now you see why the long, distracting mass emails that take up 90% of our inboxes stand little chance. And why should they? They don’t belong there.
Consider that detailed information intended for a large group of people is better suited to a public forum where it can be updated and accessed at will—like an intranet. Functional intranet software can cut anywhere from 60 to 80% of companywide email. The remaining messages will automatically attract more attention.
A modern intranet is also great for team projects and discussion threads. There are few things more annoying than being cc’d on a mile-high stack of reply-to-alls. The worst part is that these email threads often include some great points. What is the likelihood that everyone on the cc list fully grasps their significance? And what is the likelihood they will remember it the next time the topic comes up?
As a society, we increasingly rely on asynchronous communication. We don’t consume information as it becomes available. We look for it when we need it. Unfortunately for our Senior Advisor, people are not going to just read more emails. They will continue to read less. But they will communicate more through social collaborative platforms designed to integrate knowledge, not obliterate it.
But let’s say he’s stuck with email for now. What can he do to make himself less invisible inside the inbox? Let’s go back to our most common email preferences and see how we can use them to our advantage.
Personal instead of Mass
If you are emailing more than one person at a time, it helps if you’ve met everyone and made sure they want to be on the cc list. Have a relationship with them outside of email. Show them how much you care about your work and get a sense of what’s in it for them. If you treat your work relationships like any other personal relationship, people will likely return the favor.
Short instead of Long
Much of the standard email etiquette applies here. Don’t cover multiple topics in a single email. Gauge interest before showering the reader with details. Don’t dump everything you know on them all at once. Offer the bare minimum and let them come back for more. If you must use the long form, say so upfront and ask for your readers’ time and undivided attention.
Relevant instead of Distracting
What’s relevant to you may be a distraction to others. However, a bit of relationship-building helps bridge this gap. Get people excited about your project before you email them.
In short, keep your distracting emails short, your long emails personal, and your mass emails relevant. That’s how you get good results.
But suppose you can’t. Suppose the nature of your work makes it impossible for you to shorten or personalize your emails—or make them a higher priority to your readers. Then you must accept that you’re in the business of junk mail. Not because your emails have no value. But because your readers’ brain chemistry will treat your emails the way they treat holiday greetings from Amazon.
Now, the folks at Amazon have thought long and hard about the best ways to divert our attention. And you might as well enjoy their expertise. Junk-mailing has become an exact science, and the Internet is full of top-notch advice on it. So, I won’t dwell on it here, except for two points:
- Subject line
The subject line is not a way to trick people into opening your email. In fact, I don’t recommend using tricks, like symbols and highlights, or abusing trigger words, like URGENT, IMPORTANT, etc. See it as your sales pitch for what’s inside your email. It’s your one and only chance to get people to focus and pay attention before they start reading. If their brains are in the “scan and delete” mode, they will need your (the writer’s) help to switch to “read and absorb.” And by the time they open your email, it may be too late.
Use the full lengths of the subject line, if you have to, to make your case. Let’s say you are in HR and have important news. Don’t send it out under “Policy Updates.” Boil it down to a reporter-style headline: “Itemized receipts required for expense reports.” Or tell them what’s at stake: “Want your next paycheck? Read and sign these docs.”
The second most powerful; part of your email is the sender’s name. It’s common knowledge that any person’s name works better than a faceless entity, like Corporate Communications or Office of the President—even better if the recipients know the sender well. Have people who already command attention and respect send out important emails. If you plan to email under your own name, take the time beforehand to introduce yourself and explain your purpose.
Bottom line: there’s too much email. Anything you can do to communicate outside of email is to your advantage. Communication never happens in a vacuum, but always in the context of your relationships. Mind your relationships and communication will work itself out. Remember to put yourself in the reader’s mind. And never mince your words!
If you don’t feel heard sometimes, you might like my book, because it shows you how to fix it.