Home Articles Tame the email beast – get control, get opened, get actioned

    Tame the email beast – get control, get opened, get actioned


    Matt GarrettIf you’re not careful, half your day can vanish down your inbox’s throat.

    A survey of almost 600 professionals showed two thirds of them spent 2-6 hours per day just on email. And 90 percent of them wasted up to an hour each day deciphering poorly written emails or handling irrelevant ones.

    Email should make you more productive, not less! Here are some clever tips to help you:

    1. Tame your inbox (get control)
    2. Escape the “delete” key (get opened)
    3. Be more persuasive (get actioned)


    Who’s your DAADy?

    Stop living in your inbox! Set it to download emails only every hour or two. You will survive. In fact, you’ll thrive because you’ll eliminate your constant email distractions and be free to focus on one thing at a time. Imagine!

    Step 1: Make processing your inbox a separate step you do every hour or two. Process into these folders:
    Action – To be done or delegated
    Archive – Filed for reference or reading
    Defer – Put it off, but flag so you don’t forget

    Step 2: Then prioritise according to urgency and importance:
    “A” = Must do
    “B” = Should do
    “C” = Nice to do

    Step 3: Go to your “Action” folder at predetermined times to whip through as many as possible, priority “A” first.

    Go easy on the “CC:”s
    Too many people Cc: others “just in case.” This is the “CYA approach” (Cover Your Assumptions).
    Stop and think: Do each of these really need to know? If they do, tell them clearly in the email what they should do with it.

    Answer & anticipate questions
    Being in too much of a rush to clear your inbox can be counter-productive. You may not answer people’s questions properly, or anticipate their next questions, which can lead to even more emails for you.

    For example, if someone emails asking what credit cards you take, consider including extra information such as an order form and delivery details with your reply.

    How have you “trained” them?
    If people are banging down your door because you haven’t replied within 10 minutes of them emailing, it’s because you’ve “trained” them that way. Time to start changing expectations!

    Reply promptly, but not immediately
    Answer briefly—It’s ok just to write, “Sure, great idea,” to their 10page epistle!
    “Relevant?”—If you’re Cc:d on too many emails, reply with “Relevant?” to help people learn what you do and don’t need to see. But tell them your intentions in advance, reassuring them it’s about relevance, not criticism.

    One CEO began charging her subordinates $5 from their budgets for every email they sent her. She immediately brought her inbox under control, and the relevance of her emails rose dramatically. Her staff also benefited—they started thinking more, often solving their own problems.

    Email is tone deaf
    Sometimes your best email is no email at all—especially if you’re trying to sort out an awkward situation. Hiding behind your screen is a recipe for misunderstanding and disaster. Call or visit them instead. Besides, talking to a real person helps build relationships, which are critical to business.

    Fight spam
    Spam costs the world $25bn a year in lost productivity. Here are some tips to king-hitting it:

    • Protect your email address. Address harvesters crawl websites looking for email addresses, so remove yours, or change it so the spiders can’t “see” it (look up “Address munging” on Wikipedia). And never “unsubscribe” from spam (it tells them you’re a live one!).
    • Use commercial antispam software and a hardware firewall. What’s worse than spam? A virus using your computer as a “zombie,” sending spam tomillions of others!
    • Report it. Add the Australian Government’s spam reporting button, SpamMATTERS, to your MS Outlook: www.acma.gov.au


    Subject-header summaries
    People scan their inbox by subject header, so summarise your message there. If they delete your email without opening it, you want to at least know they’ve seen the essence of your message.
    Avoid: Conference call
    Try: Conference call: Fri 3pm – Review training budget

    Benefits, baby, yeah!
    A subject header, like any headline, has to interest people enough to keep them reading. If you suspect someone might not open your email, try to make your subject header as appetising as possible to them. How? We teach a variety of ways in our courses, but benefits is a biggie. That is, what’s in it for your reader? If you were them, what would make you want to keep reading?

    Keep it short
    Keep your subject header to 20 characters (including spaces). This not only ensures people can read your subject header quickly, but helps it fit within their email window where they can read it.

    Agree on acronyms
    For internal emails, agreeing on subject header acronyms with your team can really speed things up. For example:
    AR – Action required
    NRN – No reply necessary
    PERS – Personal


    It’s all about them
    Assume readers are lazy, busy and selfish. Harsh? Maybe, but it gets results.
    Lazy. Make things as easy as possible for your readers. Give it all to them on a platter. Do you want them to call someone? Include the number. Want them to notice certain information? Highlight it.
    Busy. Keep it short and to the point. Think “postcard.” Organise your topics for them in a logical structure. Use bullets and numbered lists so they can skimread.
    Selfish. Don’t just talk about what you want. Show how it’ll also help them get what they want. And say that in the first few sentences!

    “So what?”
    As you write, imagine your reader asking, “So what?” after each of your points. Explain things fully. Draw conclusions for them. Tell them what you’ll do and what you want them to do.

    Specific replies

    If someone emails you asking, “Like to meet to discuss this?” reply with specifics. Write:
    “Sure. How about next Thursday 30 June at 4pm? I’ll send you an agenda by COB Tuesday for your comments.” Anticipating necessary decisions will reduce the email traffic needed to arrive at a simple decision.

    Make responding easy
    Make it easy for your reader to respond with yes/no or a short reply.
    Avoid: “Let me know your thoughts about Lisa’s proposal.”
    Try: “Should we adopt Lisa’s proposal?”

    Crystal-clear requests
    Most people can’t mind-read (although women are better at it than men!). If you want a certain action, ask for it, simply and clearly.

    Avoid: Can you organise the meeting?
    Try: To ensure the meeting’s productive can you please do these by Wed 28 June?
    1. Book boardroom
    2. Organise catering
    3. Distribute agenda

    Use the “530” Rule
    Lead with the gold! Don’t make them read your whole email to get your key idea or message—they may not scroll down to see it. First, tell the 5 second overview of your story, then the 30 second version. Here’s an example of the 5 second one: “This update includes a review of our recent projects, current priorities, and info about next week’s meeting.”

    Separate topics
    Use separate emails for separate topics. That way each thread can continue free of others. If someone sends an email with two completely unrelated topics, send two responses, one for each topic—and change the subject header accordingly for each.

    Paul Jones is Director of Magneto Communications, where he helps train businesspeople to write professionally and persuasively on marketing campaigns, websites, speeches, tenders, reports, white papers, pitches and presentations.

    Photo: Matt Garrett (flickr)