Meaning it

I just received johnson banks’ quarterly newsletter. This is the first paragraph:

Hello

This is the autumn edition of johnson banks did this, heavily skewed to a project that’s taken up most of our year so far. If our electronic epistle arrived by mistake, just unsubscribe and our apologies for the intrusion. Alternatively, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to forward it to others who might be interested or want to subscribe.

The message is: we actually care if you want to receive this note. If you do, that’s great. We are happy. And if you don’t, we care, because we’re not interested in bothering you.

It’s amazing how, more than 20 years after the “SPAM” was first used to refer to junk email, actually caring rather than just acting like you care is still all it takes to truly stand out.

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

15 ways you can reach me

Today a friend apologized to me for not seeing a Skype text I’d sent him last week (no problem). This got me thinking about the incoming communication tools that I have, all the ways people can reach me.

  1. Work email address (Outlook)
  2. Personal email address (Gmail)
  3. Blog email address (Gmail)
  4. Blog comments (WordPress)
  5. Spam/shopping email address (Yahoo)
  6. iPhone text
  7. WhatsApp (including a few groups)
  8. Twitter (DMs, RTs and mentions)
  9. Skype calls + texts [oh, and I’m testing Viber]
  10. Facebook (and I don’t use the messenger app)
  11. LinkedIn messages
  12. Work phone + voicemail
  13. Cellphone + voicemail
  14. Home phone + voicemail
  15. [Local cell phone while traveling abroad]

Fifteen different communications tools, and I’m not that active on any of the social media platforms. Nor does this make any reference to my going out and seeking news, updates and information (blog RSS feed, Twitter feed, Facebook feed, LinkedIn Feed, etc.).

This feels like an insane list. I guess Facebook and Google want to consolidate everything for me so I’m not jumping between platforms, but I don’t trust either enough to have that feel like a good solution.

Is this just the way it is, or am I missing something?

I’m curious: how many ways can you be reached?

(p.s. Eric Schmidt wrote a piece for Time about email, which includes the maxim “Clean out your inbox constantly.” I totally disagree. Where do we draw the line in terms of our incoming communications streams, and when are we supposed to do real thinking and work if we’re triaging 15 (20? 30?) feeds all day long?).

Word Economy

Most emails are too long. And most emails, long or short, are either emotional deserts or they transmit the wrong emotional content.

Short is the only solution to email overload, and radical email shorthand is employed by nearly all the successful busy people I know. But it only works if you pick words that transmit feeling too.

One word shorthand for…

Friendly: Hey, hi, please, help, okay, great

Informal: yeah, yup, nah, sure, yo, …,

Aggressive: just (“it’s just that”), never mind, forget it

Dismissive: whatever (…you want), fine, c’mon

Connection: thank you, truly, warmly, visit (with), sorry

Encouraging: go for it!, absolutely, fabulous, super, yes!

“Just the facts” is a nice idea. But like it or not we’re communicating emotions, even in six words or less.

Threaded conversations

In my forever battle to beat back my (Outlook) Inbox, I’m in the middle of a tweak that I’m enjoying.

I switched over to show all conversations as “threaded” conversations. This is standard in Gmail and is the default on my iPhone but I’ve never done it in Outlook and had turned it off on my iPhone (it’s on again).

It’s taken some getting used to, but one week in I’m finding getting through my Inbox feels easier and faster, and overall it’s less work to keep track of things.

The way you do this on Outlook is under the “View” menu, click on “Show Conversations.” As a bonus click on “Show Messages from Other Folders” and then you’ll see your own sent replies as well as any filed messages (if you file into folders, which I don’t).

Show conversations_1

It takes some getting used to, especially because in Outlook there’s no “RE:” in the subject line, so everything feels like a new message. That’s confusing but otherwise I like it.

THE SAME SUBJECT LINE

Every time you send an email you’re asking someone to make a decision.

Open this now or later.

Prioritize it or put in the “I’ll get to it later” pile.  (And later never comes.)

When you write your spouse, your best friend, your boss, you write a subject line that will help them understand why you are writing, help them understand how important the message is (or isn’t), help communicate something.  The subject line is the second thing they see when your email arrives (the first thing they see is that you sent it).

If it goes without saying that you would never, ever, send one person an email with the same subject line each and every time, how can it be that I still get newsletters whose subject is the name of the newsletter, conference invites whose subject is the name of the conference, offers from companies with the company name as the subject in big capital letters?

As in: NONPROFIT NEWSLETTER VOL 3

Or

SOLAR INDUSTRY CONFERENCE SPECTACULAR

Why oh why?

Just because you are writing something for an institution doesn’t mean you’re supposed to sound like an institution.  Please, sound like you.

 

Less ubiquity, please

My office is in the Google building so I’ve gotten to see lots of Google Glass beta testers riding up and down the elevators.  My bet is that Google Glass will be a product flop, but that it will be a bit like the space program – the product itself won’t sell much or be relevant to most people, but the underlying technology will probably have a huge impact on our lives.

This may be old fogey-ish of me but I don’t believe that it is just a generational question that keeps me from embracing the notion of ever-present, ever-available access to the web and email and apps with the tilt of my eyes.  Yes, I could imagine that at some not-so-distant date all glasses will come with a camera option (the head is a nice, steady way to take pictures) but I don’t buy the argument we need Google Glass because with it we at least won’t look down at our smartphones when we’re at a restaurant or in a large group.  What matters isn’t where our eyes go, what matters is where our attention lies.

And I suspect that over time we will have to re-teach our children the skill of sustained attention, the skill of having an empty moment and not doing anything with it, the skill of intense conversation and real listening.  Did you know that the average teen sends 3,000 texts a month?

In today’s world we all are continually experimenting with the lines between connection / productivity / responsiveness and distraction / rudeness.  Two colleagues of mine suggested the following four rules for managing incoming email and handheld devices, which I liked:

  1. Turn off desktop alerts of new emails coming in (the little box that pops up)  (in Outlook: File > Options > Mail > Message Arrival > Uncheck “Display a Desktop Alert”)
  2. No reading email before breakfast
  3. No reading email while in transit
  4. No phone or email in the bedroom

My own scorecard is as follows:

  1. I turned of desktop alerts for new emails about a month ago and I love it.
  2. I almost never read email before breakfast and when I do it’s a sign that I’m under a crazy deadline or stressed for some other reason.
  3. Hmmm.  I made a rule a couple of years ago not to look at my phone while in elevators, and I’ve stuck to that (it had become a reflex), but I spend enough time in transit that I don’t know that I can commit to this one.
  4. I do have my phone in the bedroom but I can honestly say it’s 95% as a time-piece and alarm

 

In reality these four rules are a really low bar.  Increasingly I think we will all be playing with the limits and rules that work for us, and everyone’s line will be different.  What makes me nervous is when I get reflexive about checking.  That sort of unconscious behavior feels unproductive.

 

I remember a year ago I was on a family vacation and my wife told me how proud she was of me, because one day on vacation I’d let my iPhone battery die.  That should not be seen as a major accomplishment.

Speaking of email

What do you do when you’re running around and don’t have time to reply to an important message?

How about: “Thanks for this, just wanted to let you know I received it…I’ll reply in full in the next 48 hours.”

This allows you to:

  1. Figure out if you can just as easily reply in full in the time it’s taken you to ask for more time
  2. (For things that will actually take real time to reply) Let the person on the other end know their message was received and that you’re working on it.

Like it or not, radio silence doesn’t build relationships.

Three email rules and the bcc courtesy

Bcc: (“blind carbon copy”) has been with us since the beginning of email (as in this great ARPA email standard from 1977).  Even before email (yes, there was such a time), written office memos would be sent to recipients without letting others know they were on formal copy.  While it’s difficult to uncover the original intent of the bcc: email field, consensus seems to be that it was created for mass emailings to large email recipient lists.

So, how do we use these fields today?

While email tips and tricks can seem like small potatoes, we’re all overwhelmed by our Inboxes and like it or no, email is integral to how we communicate and, consequently, to how we build relationships.

Sadly, people routinely miss the opportunity to be “good emailers” (psst have you signed the Email Charter?  If not, you should and be sure to sign up for their mailing list.), so I thought I’d share three simple email tips that feel like table stakes to me – plus a bcc: bonus for kicks:

  1. Have as few people as possible receive an email.  This is not the same as copying people to make sure no one gets offended.  Just like a good meeting, the best emails have exactly the number of people needed to make a decision – no more.  (and last time I checked, you almost never want seven people to make a decision).
  2. Use the subject line to communicate something.  People are generally terrible about this (e.g. email chains that go on for weeks titled “RE: question.”)  Write specific email Subject lines and don’t be afraid in your reply to re-title emails you receive (e.g. take that RE: question email and turn it into “June 5th breakfast details [Re: question].”)  Occasionally I’ll even dip into the convention-breaking practice of letting someone know that I’m emailing just them to help a note stand out from the crowd (e.g. “Pankaj – June 5 breakfast”).
  3. Differentiate between the To: and Cc: fields.  To me, the To: field means “I expect a reply from you” and Cc: means “I don’t expect a reply from you but you do need to know about this.”

So what do we do about bcc:, that murky backwater of email etiquette?

Recently I’d been evolving to the conclusion that bcc: should be avoided altogether.  It feels sneaky (by definition the recipient doesn’t know you’ve done it).  And even if you don’t care about that email moral high ground, there’s the practical risk of the bcc: recipient replying all, which is never a good thing.  So “secret” bcc: is off my list of good email practice.  If you need someone to see a note you can just forward it from your Sent mail.

Lately though I’ve started to observe a use of bcc: that increases email peace and harmony. It works like this.  Say a (small!) group of people is copied on an email introduction:

e.g. Christine is being introduced to Joaquim by Alejandro.

Alejandro writes an email to Christine and Joaquim, maybe others are copied for some reason.

Now, Christine and Joaquim both want Alejandro to know how much they appreciate the introduction AND to communicate that they’ve not dropped the ball.  So naturally they ‘Reply All’ on this note, which is all well and good until 17 emails go back and forth and poor, well-intentioned Alejandro (and maybe a score of other folks) is copied on this whole mess for weeks on end.

The new-and-improved way to handle this is for Christine to respond to the note like this:

 (moving Alejandro to bcc:)

Joaquim, it’s great to meet you.  How about we find a time next week to meet – maybe next Thursday morning?

Voila!  Alejandro is in the loop for this one step and is satisfied at his successful email introductory prowess, and as a bonus he’s off the hook when Joaquim inevitably replies that he’s going to be deep-sea diving off the coast of Papua New Guinea next Thursday so maybe he can talk to Christine when he’s back stateside.

(you get the idea)

Happy emailing.

LIFO, FIFO, or NIFO?

There are lots of different email strategies out there (and it’s quite a reflection on the world we live in that mastering email is a key element in becoming more professionally productive).  You might file or search; you might believe in an empty Inbox or not; you might leave your email on all day or disconnect your email program for part of the day.

(I happen to be: search not file; no empty inbox; on all day.  You?)

The big question is, what exactly do you DO when you open up your Inbox?

The FIFO philosophy (first-in, first-out) has you digging from the back…you start with your oldest email and work backwards.  I suspect this is an uncommon strategy for all but the most avid empty-inboxers.

LIFO (last-in, first-out), conversely, has you start with whatever came in most recently.  It’s tempting and rewarding and, I suspect, a terrible strategy most of the time – instant gratification disguising itself as productivity.

I’d propose a NIFO strategy instead: none-in, first out.  That is, you open your email because you have something specific to get done, someone you want to reach out to, a very important action that you want to initiate.

Since you have many very important things to do (customers to call on, projects that you are moving forward, etc.), starting with these, rather than starting with replying to whatever everyone else wants you to do, allows you to own your agenda rather than have your agenda own you; it ensures that when you run out of “email time” (as you inevitably will) that the things that are left off the list aren’t the five most important things you have to do; and if you’re disciplined about this you’ll never dive into email just to empty your inbox…you’ll start with actions you want to initiate and then (and only then) will get to “replying all.”