If you don’t want to read about the email checklist, then just download it here.
Nobody is perfect
Full disclosure: I am not Mr. Perfect when it comes to email. I write some great emails when everything is going well. But, I send bad emails when I’m too busy, too stressed, or so absorbed in my own world that I forget how someone else might be too busy or too stressed to receive my email in the way I intended.
One really bad email
In the last job I had before I started speaking and consulting full-time, I sent my last really, really bad email.
Back then, I was having a bad week. I had too much to do, and I wasn’t getting the support I needed from my own leaders. Everyone on the team I was leading was also overworked and each of them seemed to be hitting new barriers every day. On that Friday afternoon, I got a call.
On that call, one of my team members told me that he had just come from a meeting where he believed all of his recommendations had been ignored. I was furious. At the end of the call, I typed an email to everyone who had been in the meeting. In that email I said how disappointed I was with their behavior, and that I would no longer allow them to obstruct the work of my team. I clicked send so hard that I thought I broke my mouse. Then, I went home to cool-off over the weekend.
Monday morning surprise
About one hour into my Monday morning, the leader of the other team from the meeting called me and offered to buy me a coffee so we could chat about that meeting and my email.
She said my team member didn’t offer any recommendations. She said he just sat silently and looked at his phone for the entire meeting. She suggested that I might want to confirm this with him. I did, and she was right. I had made a fool of myself.
Soon, that member of my team started making even bigger mistakes, but that’s another story.
Later that Monday, I created the first version of the email checklist. I printed it and pinned it next to my desk. I promised myself I’d never write another email like that one again. And, although I’ve sent the occasional less-than-great email since then, I haven’t dropped another giant email turd since.
As the years passed, I kept refining my checklist. Now, you can click here to download the current, high-resolution version for free!
So many people have this checklist
Often, whenever someone saw my checklist, they’d ask if they could photocopy it or if I could email it to them. I kept editing and refining the checklist over the years. Now, it’s a fun, easy to follow, one-page tool that I want to share with as many people as possible.
All about the checklist
People often ask me to explain what I mean by some of the items on the list and why they should follow my recommendations. So, I thought I’d finally write this article to explain the checklist. Here we go.
Getting what you need at work
Today, doing business and getting things done in any organization largely requires us to create and maintain relationships by email. Within any organization, resources are limited and the best communicators are likely going to get those limited resources. Whether it’s funding for their projects, approval to hire someone, any attention or decision from a leader, or even reassurance that they’re doing a good job, all these things are facilitated by good email communication.
But, email is not always the best communication channel to use for all things. So, before you send an email, stop and think.
Stop and think
Like it or not, all communication is better in-person. And if you can’t meet with someone, then the next best thing is a video or voice call.
No one stands in front of someone and says, “I’d like you to tell me something really important, but don’t use your voice. Instead, please take your phone out of your pocket and email me.” It’s like meeting a friend in a coffee shop and saying, let’s not talk to each other.
In business, and in nearly any organizational context, important information is best delivered in-person. But, since that’s not always possible, here’s how to write those important emails.
Avoid these mistakes
Often, the best emails aren’t the ones full of praise and cheers, they’re the ones that don’t include any of these mistakes.
There’s no doubt that this is the Number 1 email mistake. Writing, then sending, an email while you’re angry is usually on the top of everyone’s list of things you should never do. If you have to write it while you’re angry, then at least don’t send it. Save it for a few hours, or a few days. Then, read it out loud to yourself. If someone could hear you, would they say you sound angry? If so, rewrite it.
Frustration is another one of those negative emotions that can be a relationship killer. At work, we get frustrated when people, bureaucracy, and limited resources prevent us from achieving our goals. But, expressing frustration in an email often sounds like we are angry. Beware of frustration.
Embarrassing or shaming someone
Embarrassing or shaming someone separates them from much of what anchors people to a workplace. They no longer feel part of the team and lose their attachment to the organization. Simply singling someone out in an email might be enough to embarrass them. If you’re doing that, ask yourself if you are being passively aggressive toward that person. If leaders embarrass or shame someone, then that behavior is soon modelled by other team members. The outcome is often one of the most harmful experiences in the workplace: ostracism.
Causing fear or worry
Emails that cause worry or fear are usually sent between people who have different levels of power within an organization. They might be sent between leaders and the people they lead, between an expert and someone who relies on the expert, or between people who have different levels of influence with other powerful leaders. But, what is usually the case is that the sender is well aware that they are trying to cause fear or worry in the receiver. It’s a power-grab and it usually backfires. Remember, our objective is to avoid creating negative emotions with our emails. Avoid the temptation to advertise your power by causing fear or worry.
Delivering depressing news
In some organizations, nearly all depressing news is delivered by email. That depressing news ranges from poor financial results to telling someone that their performance needs to improve. Worse yet, I’ve even heard of people getting fired by email! Leaders in those organizations must find the courage to stand in front of their teams and start caring about the people who work for them. But, it’s not just leaders who might email depressing news. We should all try to avoid emailing depressing news to our co-workers and leaders.
Do these helpful things
Avoiding all the above mistakes is a huge step forward for most of us. But, if you want to be an email superstar, then start developing all of these helpful habits.
Say “Thank you,” or express gratitude at least once in your email. Twice is better. Three or more times might be appropriate, but you might start sounding insincere. And, that’s the key to expressing gratitude: sincerity. If you’re the initiator of the email thread, then start your first note with something that you can legitimately thank the receiver for. There’s always something you can say like, “Thanks for the chat, yesterday,” “Thanks for following our process,” etc. If you’re replying to an email, then start with, “Thanks for your previous note,” or “Thanks for the question.” Sincere thanks are always welcome.
How many times have you heard someone say, “If you’re going to tell me about a problem, then give me a solution, too.” Leaders say it to their teams all the time, and it’s the right thing to do in an email. Problems without solutions are dead emails. You can always say or do something that will get people closer to a solution. Maybe, it’s as simple as saying, “I’ll schedule a meeting so we can brainstorm solutions.” You might not always know the right solution, but you can always suggest something that will get everyone a little closer to the solution.
Give clear direction
Ever get an email and wonder what the sender is talking about? Don’t be that person. You can give clear directions by simply saying what you want and when you’d like it done by. Or, maybe someone wants your opinion. If so, tell them clearly and concisely what you think: “My position on this is . . .” Leave no doubt where you stand on something, and, if you’re not sure, then say it: “I’m not able to provide direction on this. I suggest you talk to . . .” If you create any gaps in understanding, don’t be surprised how people fill those gaps.
We all have a sense of humor, well most of us do. Hold on! Did I just make a joke or am I insulting someone that recently didn’t get my joke? Maybe I have offended you because someone recently told you that you don’t have a sense of humor. See how tricky humor is? It’s always best to minimize humor in your emails, and it’s even better to avoid it entirely. Save your jokes for your friends and family, or for only those coworkers who are your good friends outside of work. They will get you, but many others may not.
Keep it short
Here’s my rule-of-thumb: one answer to one question should be a maximum of 30 words; comments to move a conversation forward should be a maximum of 150 words; and, detailed instructions or ideas that don’t require a response can be up to 300 words. Anything longer than 300 words becomes a separate document that is required by your organization’s business processes. Very few people will read a 300-word email. I dread getting them, and you probably dread them too.
Did you download the checklist? Why not post or send me a picture of you with the checklist? What’s the best or worse email you’ve sent or received? Any email tips for us? Please let me know by leaving a comment, below. Or, you can connect with me and comment on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Also, please share this article with your family, friends and coworkers.