Interview on Writing Effective Emails with MicroAssist Instructor Scott Allen

 

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Scott Allen

 

Host: 
Today we are interviewing Scott Allen.  Scott teaches one of our Lunchtime Seminar Sessions "Writing Effective Emails.  In addition, Scott teaches many of our Web and database classes at MicroAssist, including Dreamweaver, Access, SQL and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).  He is the coauthor of The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online and a contributing author to several other books on technology and entrepreneurship. Today we are going to talk to Scott about Writing Effective Emails.  Welcome Scott. 

Scott Allen
Thank you.  During this interview I'll reference two books at some point.  They are:
The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online, David Teten and Scott Allen, AMACOM, 2005 and  SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, Knopf, 2007.

Host:
Thanks Scott.  Most of the people who take our classes don't know that you are a published author and an acknowledged expert in the area of electronic communication. Email has become such an important part of business communication.  What are some of the problems that you see when people email?

Scott Allen:
Certainly one problem is simply poor writing skills, bad grammar, and so on. But that's not fixable in a few hours. The stuff I like to help people with are those things that can be solved simply by awareness and changing some basic habits. For example: who you put in the To: line vs. the Cc: line vs. the Bcc: line really does matter. The To: line should only include people who are expected to act on the e-mail (and should include everyone who's expected to act on it).   Subject lines are another common problem. There is such a thing as too short and too long.  And they should help the recipient in organizing their communication. Also, a lot of people forget to change the subject line needs to change when the subject changes. This is extremely important.

Regarding message content itself... There is such a thing as too short and too long. Many people, especially busy managers and executives, tend to make the e-mail too short. They fail to provide enough information for the recipient to act on it.  They think they're saving time, but the inevitable back-and-forth for clarification, or worse, the correction of the errors the recipient makes because of making an incorrect assumption, costs far more time in the long run than spending an extra minute to be clear in the first place.

On the flip side, many messages are too long. Long prose is fine if you're talking about emotions and feelings, or having a philosophical discussion.  But most business communication is about action items. If a message contains more than one or two action items, it needs to be organized into a list, preferably a numbered one, not just bullet points.

Host:
One of my pet peeves is Subject Lines that have nothing to do with the email.  I've gotten emails with the subjects like "Stuff."  One of the things I've learned is that you can edit the subject line and resave the message quite easily in Outlook.

Scott Allen:
Yes -- that's a neat and very valuable trick, which we'll show people how to do in the class.

Host:
I have to admit that I do tend to send emails with incomplete information.  That is something I'll have to change.   I'm looking at my email box now and I have 12442 items in it.  I'm not the best at deleting old emails.  Do you talk about how to manage that?

Scott Allen:
Absolutely. Your inbox is just that... an IN-box.  It's not your to-do list, though many people use it that way.  I'm a big fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done, which we used as the basis for the inbox management system we talk about in The Virtual Handshake.  We have a whole chapter on "Managing the E-mail Deluge"
 
Host:
I do tend to manage my email a bit differently than most folks.  I don't tend to file it away in separate folders.  I've installed a powerful search tool called Lookout (that Microsoft offers for free) that indexes my entire mailbox and lets me find any email in under 2 seconds. 

Scott Allen:
I *love* Lookout

Host:
Most people aren't aware of this tool.

Scott Allen:
They've integrated that technology into Outlook 2007.  And unfortunately they've taken Lookout off the "market" (it was a free download). You have to get Microsoft's Desktop Search now. I tried installing it, but it wouldn't install on my machine.  So I stick to Lookout and Copernic Desktop Search.  But you do raise a great point there.  One of our tips in The Virtual Handshake is "Organize just enough."  I'll excerpt it for you here:

Use a combination of organization and search to  find the e-mails you need. Even though new search technologies are making high-speed searches of your e-mail practical, a few high-level categories  will still help you narrow your searches. However, a complex, multilayer  folder structure is burdensome to maintain and can actually make  it more difficult to find what you seek. As a rule of thumb, you want to have no more folders than you can see on one screen. This allows you to  properly file any message with a single mouse motion. If it takes you five seconds to open up your complex file hierarchy (or to scroll down if they're all open) in order to file a message that you will *probably* never need again, you're not really saving time.  I do occasionally set up temporary folders for active projects, but once a project is complete, everything goes into the big archive. All totaled I have about 30 folders, and half a dozen of them stay collapsed most of the time.

Host:
Scott, this sounds like a very powerful lunchtime seminar that will help manage the most dominant form of organizational communication today.  Any closing comments?

Scott Allen:
You know, the typical U.S. office worker receives an average of almost 100 non-spam e-mails daily. And yet... We have had thousands and thousands of hours of experience and informal and formal training communicating with each other face-to-face, but... ZERO training on communicating with each other effectively in writing.  Beyond basic grammar and punctuation, the writing you learn in school is not what will help you write effective e-mails. Literally billions of dollars of critical business get handled by e-mail every day.  When you look at it that way, how can you justify NOT spending an hour or two, or even a day, learning how to use it more effectively?
 
Host:
Great summary.  Thanks Scott