How Do You Say It?“Communication is what the listener does.” — Marc Hortsman

A boss once that told me “I dread reading your e-mails.” I asked him why. He told me that it took him too long to read them.

I thought I was providing the detail he needed to understand what I was thinking. Or why I was making a particular recommendation or decision. I was trying to communicate clearly. Instead I was confusing him by providing too much detail and burying the key points at the bottom or even the middle of the e-mail.

I’d forgotten it wasn’t about me. It was about getting my message to him in a way that was easiest for him. In this case putting the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) solved the problem.

For complicated issues I could still write out everything I needed to think through the problem. That’s the way I prefer to communicate and think. Then, when I was done, I’d take the last paragraph or sentance, and put it at the front of the email.

Then he could say “Got it, I don’t have to read the rest of this.” Or he could skim my supporting materials to figure out what I was trying to get across.

Usually, however, we would talk in his office. This was his preferred method of communication. He asked questions to get the clarity he needed, and go to the level of detail appropriate to him. Usually this was faster than me writing and him reading a long, drawn-out e-mail, and he was happier and better informed.

Curb Your Email Addiction

I call it an addiction, because it gives us the hit of feeling like we’re accomplishing something when we’re actually being distracted from the most important things we do that bring value to the company. Not sure I agree with Jim Schleckser on the “Do Nothing” suggestion, but you should certainly set up rules for your in-box. My favourite one is “If I’m not on the To: list, file it. ” Saves a lot of time not reading CYA (Cover Your Ass) emails.

One tactic I’d add would be to turn off your notifications and chimes that tell you when a new email has arrived. That really is an interruption that will destroy your productivity faster than just about anything else.

6 Ways to Curb Your Email Habit – Jim Schleckser

Stop Wasting Time on Email

Email is not work, and it certainly isn’t collaboration. It’s good for confirming facts and capturing decisions already made. It’s horrible for making decisions. Here’s why: The Bad News About Using Email to Collaborate

Simple Communications For Outstanding Managers

Got a meeting request from my manager the other day. It had a simple title: “Performance Review”. Nothing else.

Now some more context: I’m not against performance appraisals, and welcome the opportunity to sit down with my boss and see where we’re at. Haven’t have one in a while. So this is good.

Yet I was in a mild panic. To quote Hortsman’s Christmas Rule: if it’s important, and you don’t do it very often, it’s going to be stressful. Just like Christmas. Was it just me he was having this chat with? Did I miss something? Who else was going to be there? What did he want to talk about?

My response was: “Anything you’d like me to prepare?”

Now I get accused of being too nice sometimes, so maybe I could have worded that a little more strongly. I was a little pissed but didn’t want to show it. At least not yet.

Back in my Air Cadet days, one of the leadership troupes they taught us about communicating and speechifying was: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. A little simple but it worked for fourteen-year-old brains. This communique didn’t have any of those elements.

So here I am, doing what I think is a fairly decent job, and now I’m wondering if I’m getting called on the carpet, in trouble, or even about to get fired. No worries, I’ve kept my network warmed up and ready to go. I figure I’m good.

The other thing that was missing was what I like to call the Three Questions. When doing a presentation or communicating, ask yourself: what three questions would my audience like answered? 

That helps take us out of the “what do I need to say” and into a “what do they want to hear” mode. Being more focused on the audience helps us connect with them better.

It wasn’t two hours before the boss came out with a follow-up email which explained his intentions, agenda, and what he’d like us all to prepare for our one-on-one sessions. Turns out this is going to be a regular, on-going check-in for all of us. Some two-way communication going on. Yeah!

Which I’m sure was his intention in the first place. He just forget I can’t read his mind. Maybe asking “what three things does my audience want to know” might have avoided any of the short-lived misunderstandings.

p.s. this works for public speaking, town-hall meetings, newsletters, etc. too. What three things does your audience want to know?

p.p.s goes to show that even us experts get things wrong once in a while. The hardest thing about management is not managing, sometimes it’s remembering what to do in the right context at the right time.

E-Mail Made Simple

I was doing some subcontractor management for a defence communications system in England a few years ago. I got to work in an interesting part of the country, and I got to work with lots of smart people. One of the smartest was the project technical lead.

He could seemingly keep a running tally in his head of many details, moving parts, schedule, staff, and cost details – all re-callable at a moment’s notice and as needed. He also had an e-mail in-box that he was quite proud of. It had over 500 unanswered e-mails. He figured that anybody had something important to tell him they would phone him or find him in his office. For him e-mail was just a search-able black box of information. Now I’m not that smart, and maybe I’m also a bit more of control freak when it comes to e-mail (although he was a control freak in other ways).

I can’t stand having any e-mail in my in-box, and I hate wasting time on “doing” e-mail. I don’t believe you can “do” e-mail, but you sure can waste time with it.

There are lots of good blog post, books, podcasts, and web-sites that will give you advice on how to control your e-mail. I’m going to hit the highlights because I believe a one of things an outstanding manager does well is manage themselves. This includes managing their e-mail, and communicating well, which includes answering other’s questions, making decisions, and keeping up on the latest project and company statuses.

Unless you’re an eccentric genius who doesn’t need to be a good team player because he’s near the top of the class system. Then feel free to ignore this advice.

You can tame your e-mail habits, whatever they are, by:

  • Having a process,
  • Having a routine
  • Learning how your e-mail client can auto-magically file things for you
  • Not wasting time with a complicated filing system.

Have a Process

There are lots of different ways to process e-mail. It helps you decide quickly what to do with any particular message, and helps cut through the noise and lets you get to the important stuff.

Pick a process and stick to it. The best one I know is David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, which goes something like this:

Decide what you need to do with it and do it.

  • If you can deal with it in less than two minutes, do it now. The time, energy, and mental capacity required to track this bit of trivia overwhelms the effort required to just do it now.
  • If it’s something that needs to be done on or before a particular date, put it in your calendar.
  • If it will take more than two minutes but not for a specific time, put it on your to-do list.
  • If you need to keep it for reference, file it.
  • If somebody else can or should do it, delegate it (and follow-up, but that’s a different post)
  • If it’s trash, then trash it.

Those are your only six choices. That’s it.

Have a Routine

Process your e-mail at a set time or times every day. Times that you’ve got scheduled in your calendar so you have no excuse. If you’re like me that will keep you from constantly checking your in-box. Or if you’re not like me it will help you block of the time you need to empty your in-box and return all those messages that people actually expect you, the leader, to read and give a thoughtful reply to.

And for the sake of your God or gods, if you haven’t done it already, please please please turn off the notification that makes noise and movement every time you get a new e-mail. Really? How are you going to get any work done with that thing going off all the time? Including your smart phone. Nobody you’re talking too wants to know that you’re thinking about all the e-mails you’re constantly getting. Yes, you’ll live.

Have Your Computer Do the Work

In Outlook and Gmail you can set up automatic filing or filters for incoming e-mail. This means the e-mails from your model railroad club, company newsletter, or Mustang restoration club can get put in the “Later When I Have Five Minutes to Kill At the End of the Day or on the Bus” Folder without you needing to do anything. Except set up the filter the first time.

Conversely you can set up a “Now!” folder, which your e-mail program opens to by default, for message from our boss and wife. Or both. Or either.

It’s amazing how much less intimidating and frustrating an in-box is when it’s not filled with crap, and you can focus on what’s important.

Don’t File – Archive & Forget

Coming up with a complex, complete, and correct filing system for your e-mail is a waste of time. As long as the subject line is sufficiently descriptive you can use the search function to find anything you need. Even then, you can also search in the body of the e-mail.