In my previous corporate life, my morning routine consisted of getting into the office at 9 a.m. starting up my laptop and opening up my never-empty email inbox. Not a surprise there, considering how a Radicati study found that a person receives an average of 121 emails per day. In relation to an eight-hour work-day, replying emails seems to be all we’re doing every 3.75 minutes.
The emails I received typically fell under two categories: those for my information, and those marked ‘high priority’ (usually with ‘appreciate your response ASAP’ in the body). Many of them were also sent by co-workers making clarifications or asking simple questions - some who sit just metres away from me. It came to a point that I realised how many of our daily workplace interactions have been reduced to mere words on electronic screens. Convenient as it may be, it’s also scary how sending emails have become a de-facto form of communication - whatever happened to picking up the phone to talk to someone, or dropping by their cubicle to ask a question?
All that said, emails are still very much a necessity – however, the difference is in how effective the email is. The key to effective email writing is to be as concise as possible, so as to focus on the main message, and for the recipients to know exactly what to do with the information, or what to do next. This would also help them manage their time and energy at work.
Writing Emails, Military Style
I have personally found the U.S Military’s way of structuring emails to be useful and concise. This can be attributed to their need to make decisions quickly and efficiently (sometimes it can even be a matter of life and death) – hence, their method can be seen as the gold standard in email effectiveness.
Here are some of the tips I’ve picked up from them, and which I’ve also imparted to our teams at AKÏN:
1. SUBJECT OF THE EMAIL
While this is the first thing that informs your recipient what the email is about, something it doesn't quite serve its purpose. So, how does the U.S Military summarise the content of the email in a one-liner subject? It's all in the keywords they use to precede the actual heading, such as:
- ACTION: Indicates a compulsory action. Use this when you need the recipient to get something done
- SIGN: Signature required. For when you need the recipient to sign off something, either in the email itself or a printed copy.
- INFO: For informational purposes only. No response or action required for such emails. E.g. a flexible working hours announcement, or an out-of-office notification.
- DECISION: To be used when you need the recipient(s) to make a call on an outstanding matter. (Note that this should not be used to start a discussion thread on the decision making process.)
- COORD: Coordination by or with the recipient required, typically used to organize an event or meeting.
- REQUEST: Quite self-explanatoryl when approval is required for a project or HR realted (Usually pertaining to leave) request.
Aside from using the keywords, keep the actual subject length short. For example: ACTION - Project Status Update; REQUEST – Vacation; INFO - Status Update. Such titles are simple, concise, and effective in getting the message across.
2. STRUCTURE OF CONTENT
In addition to a concise email subject, the BLUF Method - or Bottom Line Up Front - is also applied when writing emails, as documented in the Air Force Handbook. This method aims to immediately answer the why, when, what, who and how, for the recipient to grasp the key points of the email within seconds.
This bottom line – or the key point of the email – comes immediately after the salutation, with the rest of the details following after. An example could look something like this:
3. LENGTH OF EMAIL
When an email is too lengthy, readers may have the tendency to forget everything at the beginning, by the time they get to the end. Sometimes, I'd have to read the same email twice to distill its key points, or the action I'd need to take.
In other words, keep your emails to the point - the shorter and more concise they are, the more efficient they would be.
Of course, there are times when a greater amount of information needs to be conveyed - but there could be a better way of getting the word across. For example, instead of sending out a lengthy email about the company’s quarterly performances, how about having a live session with the team to get real-time feedback? This could be followed with a summary document for the team to refer back to.
This military-style approach to structuring emails has worked quite well at AKÏN, and our attention is more focused on the things we need to do, or what we need from others.
Managing Emails, Managing Communication
But what happens when you, like many others, have to answer an email every 3.75 minutes? I’ve adopted Charles Duhigg's method on managing email loads:
- FOR EMAILS THAT REQUIRE RESPONSES: type out quick pointers to start with, and save the draft before moving on to tackle other unread emails. The full email can be completed after you’ve accomplished that.
- FOR 'FOR YOUR INFORMATION' EMAILS: quickly scan through them, make a note to read them thoroughly at a later time, and move on.
I believe that by improving how we manage and construct our emails, we can also improve on our overall communication, effectiveness and productivity.
Emails aside, how else can we improve office communication, and in turn, our relationships with people? While messaging apps like Slack and Lync can aid in more immediate communication, surely there’s nothing better than the most immediate way to get a simple question answered – by asking it in person.
Maybe we can all learn from those who still value the human touch; try to get some real human-to-human interaction instead of communicating via a machine or device. If that is not possible, pick up the phone - especially after a chain of more than 3 emails on the same topic. Phone conversations are more effective and useful in some situations.
Now, excuse me while I discuss this blog post with my colleagues, face to face.