February 26th, 2010

How I rehabilitated my life of email crime

If there was a prison for e-mail crimes, I’d be serving 25-to-Life, with no chance of parole.

Having since been rehabilitated, I can now look back at my wanton life of email crime with a critical, if not somewhat embarrassed, eye. In order to keep you on the path of email righteousness, here’s some advice on how to avoid the most blatant of email crimes. It was easy to compile this list: I simply looked back at all the stupid emails I have written over the course of my career and have advised you to do…the exact opposite.

And to all of those who suffered as a result of my life of crime: I am truly sorry. Really, I am.

How to Talk on the Telephone

See this? It's a cool invention. Sometimes more efficient than e-mail

  1. Never ever under any circumstances EVER write an e-mail when you’re angry. Go for a walk, for a run, for lunch, talk with a trusted friend, shopping, to a park, to the lake, around the parking lot, to an empty conference room…do anything except write that email. Don’t do it. Calm down and think. Trust me, things always look better in the morning. Except if you send that email.
  2. Click Save, not Send. If you ignore tip #1 and you must write as part of your personal therapy, then don’t send it. A VP friend of mine gave me this useful advice, helpfully pointing out to me that the “save” icon is right next to the “send” icon in Outlook. “See? It’s a clue!”, she said. How about that? Just make sure you leave the “send” field empty so you don’t send it by accident because that would be so very very sad.
  3. Just the facts ma’am. When you do finally calm down enough to send an email, stick to the facts. Writing things like “John is an idiot and should be fired immediately” is an opinion. Opinions don’t belong in business emails, only facts do. Instead, you could write: “John is late delivering his drawings, and this is the second time that this has occurred for this project alone. Since these drawings affect our next billing milestone, the project will be unable to meet its cash objectives for this quarter. An action plan is urgently required to address this situation.” See? No opinion, just cold, hard facts. Here’s some advice that’s particularly true for Project Managers: pick the facts that management cares about, like cash. (Cash is always good.) Other facts Project Managers should consider: schedule, cost, cash, cash, cash, revenue, cash, quality and customer satisfaction, all of which affects cash and revenue. Oh, and did I mention cash? Stick to these facts and you’ll get everyone’s attention.
  4. Keep it short. If it’s longer than 3 lines, then it shouldn’t be an e-mail. You either need to split it into more than one e-mail, pick up the phone or call a meeting. I once had a boss, bless his heart, who replied to one of my long and preachy e-mails (see #7) with the following comment: “Your e-mails are boring and I don’t read them past the third line.” I took it in stride. After that, we played a game: every email I sent him, I’d end it with the number of words in brackets. He’d reply with his number of words. His number was always lower than mine (sometimes only 2!) Mind you, he got to reply with words like: “Approved (1)”, “Not Approved (2)”, which was easy for him. And this was long before Twitter was invented! (Twitter? That’s coming in another blog post.)
  5. Get out of your cubicle. I once sent five or six e-mails to my cubicle neighbour. In a row. On the same morning. And no, I wasn’t mad at her or anything, I was just being a typical introvert. I stopped when she said to me, through the cubicle wall: “Good morning, Elisabeth. How are you today? Do you have time to talk about some of these things with me today?” Geez, talk about embarrassing.
  6. Reach out and touch someone. When email first came out (yes, I’m that old), I thought it was amazing. You can send correspondence to someone without printing it out on paper and faxing it! Or without mailing it! Marvelous! But, until you’ve exchanged emails back and forth with your lead engineer regarding the fact that the model keeps crashing and you now have to tell the customer we’re delayed another month, you will not appreciate how ineffective email really is for conversations. The answer: it’s not. Pick up the phone, and talk in real time. I’ve been able to resolve seemingly complicated issues with one phone call, at a net cost of 5 minutes, after wasting hours going back and forth exchanging convoluted emails. Alexander Graham Bell was onto something, don’t you think? If you need to reacquaint yourself with his marvelous invention, take a peek at the handy picture, with directions, that I’ve posted for you.
  7. You can’t solve world hunger. You have an opinion and need to share it? Your opinion can save the world? You want to teach, train, pontificate, hop on a soap box, tell everyone what’s wrong with the world and fix it? That’s great, except: none of this stuff belongs in an email in a business environment! Unless you’re specifically asked by someone very high up in your company. (This never happens, by the way. But if it does, there’s a protocol on speaking out which I’ll handle in a separate blog post.) If you’re burning with opinions, by all means, express yourself: start a blog, make a YouTube video, create a lens on Squidoo, give a speech to your professional association, be a guest speaker at a local college or university. There are literally hundreds of ways that you can share information and opinions, without violating your professional ethics or your employer’s code of conduct. Many of them are free, easy and, trust me, so very good for your mental health. Why do you think I finally started this blog? I’m not kidding when I tell you that it’s cheaper than therapy!

So, that’s it. Stick to these seven tips and you will stay on the path of email righteousness. But if you stray, and end up in email prison, come by and say hi. I could always use the company…it gets lonely in solitary confinement, you know?

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