Email has been around long enough now that we take it as much for granted as the telephone. It’s simply another amazing technology tool we now take mostly for granted, allowing us to easily communicate with friends, family, clients, and colleagues across the planet (or in the next cubicle!). When you hear people complain about email, most likely it’s about the unmanageable demon that is their Inbox, and how much time email sucks out of their day.
What isn’t talked about nearly as much is the price we pay for using email to communicate with one another when we should really be picking up the phone or meeting in person. The price paid is misinterpretation, wasted time, reduced efficiency, and lost opportunities to build stronger relationships.
So I offer a RES-CUE strategy to help you determine when to use email to communicate your message effectively, and when you’re better off picking up the phone or “doing lunch.” RES stands for the three communication needs that are ideal for email. CUE represents the three needs that make voice (or face) the better choice.
IDEAL FOR EMAIL
Record. Do you need a record of your correspondence? It could be as simple as a date/time stamp, documenting when the exchange took place for personal, contractual, or legal purposes. It might be a record of an action item that you and your recipient want to reference later. Email can record meeting minutes, a policy or procedure, a set of instructions, or an involved description. Imagine trying to convey these things over the phone or in person. Sure, you can take handwritten notes, but email is such a quick and convenient way to create a digital trail. And of course email is a great way to send attached documents to people. Finally, an email can have historic value, documenting important milestones in your personal or professional life.
Efficiency. Do you need to get a message out to several people at once? It may be an announcement, an invitation, or simply to inform a group about something of interest. You might even want them to weigh in on a decision. What determines whether you need to do this in person, by telephone, or by email depends on how urgent, complex, or emotional the information is (more about this to come). The larger the group of people and the simpler the message, the more useful it is to send an email. Just beware of creating an unraveling email thread. To minimize this, state clearly in your original email who should respond, and how, so the email thread stays small and manageable for everyone.
Schedule. Email is great for communicating an upcoming event that you want someone to add to their schedule. It could be a meeting, an event, a trip itinerary, a task, even a chore or errand. Clearly state the what and when in the subject line, and flag the email for “follow-up” or “high priority” so it’s easy for the recipient to add the item to their calendar. If you’re a power email user, you might even set up an automatic reminder to help recipients “save the date.”
VOICE IS THE BETTER CHOICE
Complexity. Have you ever tried to explain something in an email, struggled through several versions, then gave up and just picked the phone to call the person instead? The more complex your message, the less effective your email. This is the test: if it’s easier to explain verbally than in writing, if you anticipate lots of questions in response, or you want detailed input from someone, pick up the phone or see the person. Don’t send an email.
Urgency. This should be self-evident. If a meeting that was originally scheduled for tomorrow is now convening in 10 minutes; if you have to leave right away to pick up a sick child from school; if there’s any kind of message that requires immediate action, email is not the way to go. Your recipient may be notorious for checking their emails every five minutes, but don’t assume that a) it will arrive in their inbox when you need it to and/or b) they’ll actually be at their computer when it arrives. Pick up the phone, leave a voicemail. You can follow up with an email as a backup. Just don’t make it your primary mode of communication.
Emotion. This is where many people trip up. Because you’re missing the vocal and visual cues essential to complete communication, email can easily be misinterpreted. Add emotions to the mix and things are bound to go awry. The most common ways that emotions confound email messages is in delivering bad news, using humor, or expressing anger. Delivering bad news by email is simply insensitive, as it offers the recipient no consolation or opportunity for clarification or input. Humor usually requires vocal inflection, facial expression, and timing to successfully pull it off without risking insult to someone.
And then there’s anger. Say someone sends you a snide email (or one that you interpret as snide). You immediately fire off a vitriolic reply, experiencing a rush of satisfaction as you hit the send button. Then what? More misinterpretation, more anger. And, to add insult to injury, you now have a record of the exchange so you both can revisit the angry exchange over and over. Great. The antidote? Pick up the phone. Even better, ask to schedule a meeting in person. This does three things. First, it buys you (and the other person) time to cool off, to invite your rational mind back to the helm. It also provides an opportunity to get more information so you don’t come to unnecessary conclusions. Finally, you both benefit from a more complete interchange, with vocal inflection and body language, and the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers in real time—before your imagination has time to run away with the situation.
So before you craft that next email message, run it through your RES-CUE filter. You’ll be surprised how many times you find that picking up the phone or scheduling a face-to-face is the better choice. Make this a consistent habit, and you’ll reap an unexpected reward – the fewer emails you send out, the fewer responses you’ll get, making your inbox a slightly more manageable demon.