December 12th, 2016
Do you want to increase the efficiency of your remote communications by a factor of ten? Keep reading then.
If you have all the necessary information to respond to an e-mail, do it now. You already spent time reading the e-mail. By not responding immediately, you are wasting time re-reading it next time and categorizing it. We spend too much time managing e-mails instead of just replying to them.
If there are dependencies, then start working on those dependencies immediately. Do you need to ask someone a question before you can reply? Ask it right now. Don't accumulate that debt. You'll just pay it back with overwhelming interest.
To avoid being constantly distracted by e-mails, close your e-mail client and open it only when you are between two tasks. Even better: you can set aside scheduled times for e-mail reading.
Before you ask a question, take a moment to search for the answer yourself. Let's say that you are in charge of submitting artwork to print posters. You can e-mail the printing company to ask them about the artwork submission procedure, but that sounds like a very common question, so the company has probably e-mailed you either a link or PDF with instructions. Take a moment to check your e-mails and their website. That would take 5 minutes.
Alternatively, if you e-mail the company, you won't get the answer immediately. This means that you'll have to get to your task later and context-switching is expensive. You'll possibly even need to waste even more time following up in case you don't get the information after some time, because everyone is saturated with e-mails.
If you really need to send that question, ask yourself how likely is it that you get another question in the next 15 minutes. If it's likely, keep working until you get more questions. Write them in a draft and send when you're done. Number the questions, because it makes it easier for them to separate questions and respond to each point.
You combine e-mails because it takes less time to answer one e-mail with six questions than six e-mails with one question each. This is because the other party is receiving other e-mails in the mean time. As I said earlier, context-switching is expensive.
Split your e-mail into paragraphs of two short sentences each. Try to stay under four paragraphs. Use bullet points where possible.
The key to shortening e-mails is to focus on objectives. What am I trying to achieve? What does the other person need to know in order to make a decision? Remove the rest. I've seen people write four-page e-mails that could have been summarized with "sorry, I can't afford this".
Don't tell people the entire backstory to a decision. We don't realize how much fluff we add until we start shortening an e-mail that we just wrote, and end up with less than 20% of the original. As an exercise, I want you to take this blog post and try to shorten it.
Sometimes, you do need to send a big information kit. In that case, use bold headings to separate points. Only link or attach optional information. Keep the basic stuff inline.
Once you're done writing, move action points to top, or to beginning of each paragraph. Highlight them so that people don't need to re-read everything when answering or don't forget some of the action points.
Write the subject last and summarize main points. Example: when you finished booking a flight to a conference and send them an invoice for reimbursement, use the subject "Travel dates & reimbursement".
Always try to think of information that a person needs to make a decision and include it, even if it's very easy to find. Example: if you're inviting a person to speak at your conference, tell them the dates and location of the event, the submission deadline, and whether you reimburse travel expenses. This is the strict minimum that a person needs to decide whether to submit, so make it possible for them to decide immediately. If they have to go fetch for more info, you're going into a "need to address eventually" queue, which is where e-mails go to die.
A phone call is distracting, but holding fourteen asynchronous conversations at any given time via e-mail is insanely inefficient. You waste much time predicting possible questions or objections. Delay between responses makes everyone forget previous information. Again, context-switching is a time killer. Get those conversations out of the way. Writing is also a lot slower. It can take anywhere up to 20 minutes to write an e-mail. A 4-minute phone conversation can easily replace 10 such exchanges.
Take notes during the conversation of decisions. E-mail them a very quick summary. This only takes a couple of minutes but has many benefits. It centralizes information, makes it searchable and also keeps a log of decisions.
Please, always include a phone number in your signature in every e-mail. Help people to send you fewer e-mails.
By keeping your communications efficient, you'll inspire others to do the same. Also, if you manage people, tell them that it's okay to remind their colleagues to keep it short. This way it won't seem impolite. We all need an occasional reminder to get to the point.
Coming up next: increase efficiency of meetings.