Maybe Email Isn’t Your Problem

Dear New and Confused

First of all, congratulations on leading your first big project! It’s a great feeling to know that your managers trust you enough to take control of a significant effort. This means that they trust you. You don’t need to do anything to earn that, all you need to do is show that they were correct in choosing you for the job.

That said, lets move to your communication skills. There are a number of things that you mentioned, and I’ll address all of them. However, I need to start by asking why you feel like you need to email such complex information. I’ve personally led several very complex and significant projects. One one occasion, we were under a tight deadline and we were a very large team, so I knew that I couldn’t rely on email. I had daily meetings, in person, with my entire team. These meetings took 15 minutes, but it was a way for me to convey the complexities of the near-term tasks ahead. That way, someone could ask questions. I could explain things better.

Meeting-clapping-success-happy-productiveOn another occasion, I was separated from my team, but the tasks were no less complex, so we had a daily phone conference. It lasted 30 minutes each day, but again, it gave me the opportunity to explain the details of our work as well as allowing the team to ask questions and collaborate. None of this is natively easy on email, so I would suggest that you start by finding ways to engage your team and your managers in other ways. Plus, there is no better way to impress your boss than by showing him in person what a great leader you are. Here is an article which further discusses explaining complex concepts, and they all originate from a face to face perspective.

That said, there are times where email is necessary. So my best advice is to explain the ending up front. I’ve discussed this in other blogs, but the BLUF concept. Of course, I’m talking about starting an email by bringing the Bottom Line Up Front. This is especially useful in emailing status reports to management. Your bosses will love the fact that they know the results of your work before having to trudge through your lengthy email. And often, they have limited time before their boss is asking them status on their project. So, even if they only read the BLUF, they can report your work to their boss, and if there is one thing I’ve learned in all my years in industry is that the best way to move up is to make your boss look good in front of his bosses.

Of course, if you’re working on complex details with your technical staff, then this isn’t a helpful approach. If you’re discussing the best way to architect your network with an engineer, or if you’re trying to figure out your monthly burn rate with your finance person, you need the details and not much else. But the key here is to keep it focused. The boss doesn’t need to know how you and the engineer solved the problems with the network. Your engineer doesn’t need to know how you and the finance person figured out how to meet your budget requirements. So, keep technical emails very directed. And don’t forget about meetings or teleconferences. My general rule is that if you are emailing more than 3 people who need to know the same technical information, its time for a meeting.

Okay, for the last thing, I noticed that you are afraid to ask your boss for criticism. When Sheryl Sandberg was asked by Mark Zuckerberg to become the COO of Facebook, she made an odd request. She asked that she and Mark have time set aside where he could feel open to critique her work. Time set aside to tell her what’s working and what isn’t. This has proven incredibly valuable for Facebook, and its something that we can all do. I would encourage you to approach your boss and explain to him or her that you would value feedback on your work so that you can be as effective as possible. In my experience, bosses don’t generally willingly offer this feedback for a variety of reasons, but if you open the door for that, they’re more than happy to have that conversation.

I know this response isn’t a “how-to” for writing better emails, but I do hope that it gives you tools to be a better and more effective employee, leader, and co-worker. I’ll leave you with these points:

  • Don’t email when you don’t have to. Meetings are almost always better
  • When you do email, be direct. Target your audience and write for them
  • Ask for feedback. Don’t ever be in a position to question what your management thinks about you.

If you can do these things, you’ll be just fine.

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Published by

Ben Posthuma

Just a guy who loves the Colorado life! Skiing, cycling, mountain biking, camping, climbing, triathalon, you name it and I'll be there. In addition, I'm a student at the University of Colorado - Boulder working on a degree in Business Management with a goal of a PhD in Telecommunications. Oh yeah, I have a job too. I'm a research director at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in South Boulder working to rebuild our nation's public safety communications networks.

6 thoughts on “Maybe Email Isn’t Your Problem

  1. Ben,

    I really like how you brought up that personal experience you had with your team when you were working. I also loved your reference about Mark Zuckerberg it was a great example and kept me intrigued when reading your blog!

    -Austin

  2. Hi Ben, I really enjoyed your thoughtful post on writing a professional email. I thought that it was great that you helped out New and Confused by giving them advice with examples of what you have previously done in the work place. A lot of the advice that you gave is like what i gave New and Confused. It very important if you’re new to ask for feedback because if you don’t you will never grow.

  3. The ideas you provide in your post are really interesting and useful in real work environment. You are giving your real life examples. Like the leading complex project. I agree with you that sometimes lists a lot complex information will confuse people instead the face to face communication is better way to exchange information. Also I think the “Bottom Line Up Front” concept is interesting and useful, I will try to apply this method next time when I’m write emails.

  4. I really enjoyed the thought about talking from the bottom up. If we are able to explain the conclusion first we will ultimately be able to discuss the in between. I would like to implement this process in my own writing style and emails. Get to the main point first and then explain where you are going with it. Thank you for the thoughtful post!

  5. Ben,
    I enjoyed reading your post, and agree with many of the points you brought up throughout. I agree that it is very important to lay out the main points of your email immediately, as it gives the reader a heads up on what to expect throughout. By doing some pre-writing before typing an actual email, you have the ability to lay out what you are writing, to whom, and why. Great post!

    -Aaron

  6. Ben, awesome post as usual. The way you talked about your own personal experiences was really great. It is good to visualize actual situations that we may face. It gives a better view and understanding of what to do in these situations. The way you finished your post with those 3 bullet points was really helpful. It helped solidify their importance in my mind. Now I feel ready for any sort of email!

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