Email is a big problem. Experts say that it causes more work, saps productivity, and might even make us stupid. We know that email is the “business letter” of tomorrow, a quaint technology that’s fun to ridicule (preferably on long jetpack jaunts). But, while it’s likely that email will eventually be overtaken by rapidly evolving instant messenger technologies like the up-and-comer Slack, the email corpse isn’t cold yet. Most of us are going to be “hitting send” for years to come.
In the meantime, here’s two IM strategies that will help you write better emails.
1. Ditch the background. With IM, you can't give the whole back story, and with well organized enterprise systems, you don’t need to. Your reader knows she can easily get background in a searchable archive. In email, if you HAVE to provide some background, put it at the bottom of the email, and label it as background.
2. Think before you write. Even though it’s called “Instant” Messaging, IM takes planning. Unless you’re drunk, or twelve, your texts are usually pretty concise, at least at work. That’s because you do two things before you text: 1. You think. 2. You boil down.
But most of us don’t think before we email, and we never boil anything down. Here’s an example:
I talked to Steve about the database password for the Mariana workflow. I need the password to update the TPS reports before the all hands meeting. He said that I could find it in the QUARTZ file because that’s where the sales team accesses it. He told me that last year he did have trouble accessing the QUARTZ file one time and that you were able to help him locate the password. I have been trying to get into the file but it’s not opening for me. Can you help me access the database password for the Mariana workflow?
Read between the lines. Here’s what Jennifer was really saying:
I haven’t given this email one second of thought before I started to write it. Now I’m going to tell you the story of
why I am asking you the question I haven’t asked you yet. It’s a sort of a mystery story, because you have no idea
why you are reading this. (I hope you enjoy mysteries!) So come along with me on my rambling thought journey
until I figure out what I want to say. I know you have a lot of time and I promise, I will get to my point soon.
Oh yeah, can you help me access the database password for the Mariana workflow?
Here’s what Jennifer should have said:
Can you help me access the database password for the Mariana workflow? I have been trying to get into the file
but it’s not opening for me. Steve told me that you helped him get access in the past.
Here’s why I ask
I talked to Steve about the database password for the Mariana workflow. I need the password to update the
TPS reports before the all hands meeting. He said that I could find it in the QUARTZ file because that’s where
the sales team accesses it.
So when you "hit send," think IM
Ditch the background or move it to the bottom. Remember to “think and boil down, just like you when you text. Your readers will thank you. Well,maybe not, but they may actually read your emails.
Are your “friendly reminder” emails routinely ignored? Get attention – and compliance – with this tip from persuasion science.
In my work as a communication coach, I hear this complaint a lot: “My job is to get people to do X, and they never do it. I send repeated emails, add threatening subject lines like ‘Third reminder,’ and cc their boss. What can I do to make people do what I ask the first time?”
The bad news: you probably can’t turn your audience into a bunch of “Your-wish-is-my-command” yes-bots. The good news: You can get better results by using behavioral research about what motivates people to act.
The simple sentence UK tax collectors used to increase tax payments
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Good Communication Requires Experimenting with Your Language, authors Michael Luca and Oliver Hauser describe a big compliance problem experienced by the UK’s version of the IRS, the HMRC. For years, the HMRC would send tax delinquents a letter saying:
We are writing to inform you that we have still not received your tax payment of $5,000. It is imperative that you contact us.
The letter didn’t have much of an effect. It just didn’t persuade people to pay up. Things changed in 2010 however, when the HRMC got help from a team of behavioral researchers who revised the letter using insights about what motivates people. They added one simple sentence:
We are writing to inform you that we have still not received your tax payment of $5,000. By now, 9 out of 10 people in your town have paid their taxes. It is imperative that you contact us.
The sentence worked. Compliance increased by 5%. It may not sound like much, but it represents millions of dollars in new revenue.
Why did the persuasion experts add those words? Because they knew the power of “social proof,” the principle that people are influenced to do something if they know that other people are doing the same thing. It’s the peer pressure your mother was referring to when she asked “Would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so did?”
Use this one persuasion tip to boost response to your emails
Take advantage of persuasion science when you need to get people to take an action. Try adding one simple “social proof” sentence to your request emails. Of course you’ll want to use language that makes sense for your audience, but here are some phrases to get you started.