I just started a new job and I’m not the best written communicator, but the people I report to are really not good at it. I want to send emails that are so good they will learn from them. Any go-to solutions for clarifying, confirming, or re-iterating information with a very poor email communicator? When is it appropriate to semi-educate?
Andy: Oh, I feel your pain. I’ve seen some bad emails in my lifetime: crazy fonts, all red caps yelling at me to PLEASE READ ENTIRE THING!!! with every formatting element under the sun in one message. I have emailed in chains where I’ve stated my availability and voila! The meeting is set for when I am not available. The people writing these emails will probably not learn from you. They have seen thousands of emails at this point, and here they are, still finishing every sentence with an ellipsis.
Emma: Yes, unfortunately those of us who perk up when they witness email perfection are already savvy enough communicators to know the glory we’re looking at. But I say keep at it! Lead by example. I believe my own (obviously gorgeous) emails may have affected this kind of change before: When our team at Reviews.com was in the midst of its acquisition, a stranger on the other end of one of the three billion fact-finding emails that transpired told me he appreciated my email’s organization, and how I used bullets to answer to all his questions — which were, of course, formatted as a dense, twelve-line, stream-of-conscious paragraph. Did this man start using bullets in all his future emails? Unconfirmed. But maybe! He at least noticed.
Andy: I am blown away by this story. It gives me great hope. Write the emails you wish to see in the world, and the world may change.
Emma: Right? But I agree. You’re not going to witness an email revolution amongst your colleagues any time soon.
Andy: All you can do is send clear, direct emails. I do because they please me in their form and style. I like sending them — and I also like the kind of results I get. When I ask easy to answer questions, I get faster answers. When I’m clear, our email bouts go fewer rounds.
A Few of Our Favorite Email Clarity Tricks
Corresponding with a confusing and/or confused person is an exercise in extreme patience. Treat it like a puzzle: how can you be so clear and so concise that even the most befuddled recipient can understand?
● Use bullets. Advanced move: headers & bullets. Advanced Pro move: Illustrative screencaps!
● Don’t waste sentences by asking people to read the whole email. Instead, shorten your email.
● Ask clarifying questions, without fear and ideally in bullets.
● Rephrase questions so they’re as close to yes/no as possible.
Before: What do you think we should do?
After: I think we should do this. Do you agree?
● Group question types together. For example:
Confirming these three scheduling items:
Open questions I’d like your feedback on:
● Gut-check your coherence by asking someone to read your email and telling you what they think it says.
● Edit so any pleasantries come last, not first.
Before: Hope you had a great weekend. Had a quick question for you: Which color do you prefer for the brochures? Andy
After: I’m finalizing the color for the brochures. Which do you prefer: mauve or navy? Hope you had a great weekend, Andy
● Cut to the chase. Delete any windup or hedging, and shift all your explanation lower down the page. It’s like taking the SAT: you’re supposed to read the questions before reading the paragraphs.
Before: Here’s where we’re at. Here’s what we’ve done so far. Here’s where we need your input. Now that you’ve read all that, here are some questions for you: Question 1, Question 2, Question 3. Thanks!
After: Hi, Can you answer these three questions?
Here’s some more context about what we’ve done, where we are, and why we need your help here. Thanks!
● Pick up the phone and stop the email madness.
Emma: Okay, responding to a convoluted email.
Andy: Yes. Oof.
Emma: All the same complications that exist in most types of communication — power, privilege, gender — are heightened when one person in an email exchange is a disaster. Our reader is new in the job and his superiors are sending bamboozling emails. I’ve been there. How do you correct without overstepping? How do you clarify without seeming like you’re a dummy? It’s a different strategy than, say, responding to a direct report, where I have no problem saying: “Huh? Your email doesn’t make sense.”
Andy: I think to a certain extent, this sort of audience adaptation is savvy and shows awareness. But I recommend being fearless when correcting or clarifying any email. I know it feels horrible to be the one replying-all to say: “No, 1pm is when I’m not available.” But them’s the facts, and facts are appropriate for everyone.
Emma: We’ve all struggled with that half-phrase lead in to a clarifying email. The two I see the most (and have used the most) are something along the lines of “Apologies for any confusion…” and “Per my last email…”
The former is a throw-away phrase that does no one any good. If you use it at all, save it for when you did in fact cause confusion.
Apologies for any confusion. I meant to say I was only available before 1pm.
Andy: The latter is designed to make a point: you’re right, the person reading it is wrong, and they (as well as anyone cc’d) need to know it. I’m sure there are instances when this is appropriate, although I’m trying to think of them and am coming up blank. Maybe after another cup of coffee.
Emma: I know Andy is going to say you do not need to replace these two email phrases with better ones: just ditch ’em and start with the true meat of the email.
Andy: Totally! Delete and move on! So you sound direct in your emails — what’s so wrong about that? You didn’t apologize for something you didn’t do! Woohoo!
Emma: I agree. But we also understand that it can feel like a void to have no wind-up at all. If that’s you, try some of these.
How to Start a Clarifying Email
If you really did cause confusion:
● Keep your culpability short: Ack! I meant I was only available before 1pm.
● Apologize for what you’re actually sorry for: Sorry to keep the scheduling conversation going, but I’m only available Monday before 1pm.
● Or move it to the end: I meant to say I was only available before 1pm. Apologies for any confusion.
If you’re trying to clarify someone’s confusion:
● Affirm and try again (in a better, clearer format): Sure, I’ve clarified that portion of the new process below in blue.
● Clarify in a new medium, and then offer a non-email way to get even more: I did a 3-minute video walkthrough of me using the new system. Take a look and see if that clears things up. I’m also happy to come by your desk to help when you’re trying it the first time.
If you’re asking for clarification:
● Admit your confusion: I’m not quite sure what you mean. Which designs are you referring to?
● Point directly at your confusion clearing up: Ok, I think I’ve got it now. Am I right that: to claim lost items, a person needs to…
● Articulate the stakes: Clarifying our order before I confirm with the supplier. Once we place the $2M order, we can’t get the money back. We’re ordering…
If you’re reiterating something you’ve already explained:
● State the takeaway first: That time doesn’t work for me. I’m only available before 1pm.
● Let them take the credit: Yes, totally. It sounds like we’re on the same page.
Andy: That last one is so good. Nothing stops the drama triangle faster than, “Yes, I agree with you.” Or, “You’re right.” It can take some pride swallowing if behind that is, “Now you’re saying what I was just saying, and so now you’re right, but really it was me who was right to begin with.” But remember, you’re not emailing to get applause. You’re emailing to stop the emails.
Emma: If you can do that: you win!
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Write the Emails You Want to See in the World Edition