Earlier in the week I identified that we all have the same number of seconds in a day, and asked what you were doing with your time. Well, managers and executives are even more pressed than most people, and are often flooded with "important" emails and meetings that eat away their ability to concentrate, make decisions, or manage their time. Very often they feel like this:
Project Managers and team leaders often find themselves needing input or decisions from others, and feel they need to provide a lot of background to ensure that the recipient is well informed. The problem is that very often our recipient can feel like they've been thrown-up on with data, and unable to identify what exactly we are asking for. With that in mind, I would recommend a couple of courses of action to improve the chances that your targeted recipient will actually read the email you are sending:
1. Subject Line - What Do You Want?
Include in the subject line what you are looking for from the email. Is it an FYI? Do you require a Decision? Is there an Action you would like the recipient to take. These are useful pieces of information that allow the recipient to understand the intent (remember that one from the confused communication post a couple of weeks ago) of the information provided. Once you identify what you want, include wording that summarizes the specifics you are looking for:
FYI - Meeting Cancelled
Decision - Purchase of New Software
Action - Schedule Discussion with Steering Committee about Risk Matrix
Opinion - What do you think we should do regarding the out of data software?
2. BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front
In the military we were taught Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF), which meant that most of our communications would start with the requested action or intended result at the very beginning, sometimes (commander's preference) before any greetings, details, or questions. This is dramatically different from what most high schools and colleges teach. In school you would build up your arguments and then deliver your conclusion/thesis statement. Today, very few people have the patience to read about the three supporting pieces of evidence prior to seeing the conclusion. Instead, most managers/executives want the conclusion and then will read more if they feel they need the supporting pieces. Thus start with the BLUF. It is typically appreciated because the recipient now knows what you want and has an idea of what to do next.
In the first sentence or two of the email, write your conclusion and the specific action item/decision you need (along with time requirements if any). In the civilian world, this is typically the second sentence after the opening (Hi, I hope you are having a great week...etc.) In the military, and in some industries, I could just put in bold letters at the top of the email:
BLUF: Please respond with a decision regarding the purchase of ...
Honestly, the bold at the top of the email is my preferred method, but I tend to be more Goal focused and like direct communication. If you do this with the wrong recipient, or in the wrong environment you are more likely to create problems than solve them, as you will be identified as pushy, aggressive, and don't care about people (even though I included PLEASE in the BLUF request! Go figure). Remember, the Diffusers of Great Communication (1-7 here and number 8 here) and that it is the communicator's responsibility, not the recipient's, to adapt/adjust to those Diffusers.
3. Avoid Long Paragraphs
Again, back in school we were taught to write detailed paragraphs to support our arguments. Today that information will be skimmed over at best. Instead break the details down into bullet points or (in my opinion) better yet an outline format. Keep each bullet to a sentence if possible, and no more than 3 sentences (if you are using 3 sentences, then consider dropping each additional sentence as sub-bullets). This will allow the recipient to skim the upper level topics in the outline and then decide if he/she needs to dive deeper into the supporting material.
Now, I prefer an outline format because it is easier for the communicator and the recipient to avoid confusion in future emails. It is easier to say:
I have a question about Item 2.a.1 in the outline.
than to say:
I have a question about Main Bullet 2, sub-bullet 1, sub-sub bullet 1.
Plan your communication for clarity and ease, as well as quick review.
4. Thank you
Finally, don't forget to thank the recipient for the communication. If you know the recipient well, perhaps you can identify when you will reach back out to them regarding the information in the email. If you are unsure, then it may be best to leave that part out, again to avoid looking overly aggressive.
To help out with this, I've provided a potential example of an email that may at least be partially read by management/executives.
Subject: Decision Point - Purchase of DataLoader Classic
Hello Mrs. A,
I hope you had a great weekend, and enjoyed some time with your kids. Regarding the DataLoader Classic, a purchase decision should be made by the end of the week to keep the project schedule. My recommendation is to buy the software, for the following reasons:
a. Cost is significantly less per license than similar software packages (by $5+ depending on the comparison.
1. DataLoader Classic: $XX
2. Option 2: $XX
3. Option 3: $XX
a. This software works on the active screen, meaning it can be used across software platforms where manual data entry may occur.
1. Other solutions are software specific, meaning we will not be able to use them for other applications/tools
I will circle around with you Wednesday in case you have any questions, or please feel free to reply to this email.
Matt Morey, PMP
Notice how I identify in the subject line what is required, that the second sentence (since the first included some commentary meant to show that I care about the recipient) is the BLUF, and that the supporting information is provided in the outline? Towards the end I identify when I will circle around to help with the decision, and thank Mrs. A. for taking the time to read the email.
Before you dive into this format, I would recommend discussing it with your intended recipients and identifying their preferences. To some people this method can be viewed as overly aggressive, and create more problems than it solves. However, I've learned that time strapped managers/executives come to appreciate this method of email because they know what is expected right at the beginning and don't have to search through tons of text for an answer.
Give it a try, and let me know the results! Did I miss something? How do you prefer to send/read emails? And how do you make sure that the recipient will read it when they need it?