(I originally posted this article on Medium on Jan 14, 2014)
Email is a touchy subject for a lot of people. How to organize email for efficiency, for instance, is a much debated topic. The zero-inbox method is perhaps the most popular organizational method. Others will insist on labels and folders and forwarding and archiving and blah and blah blah; I don’t actually care. My email is organized into a single folder with two categories: read and unread. You can feel free to comment about how I am wrong about this, but I have been doing it this way for 20 years, and I’m pretty damn good about keeping up with it.
Furthermore, a lot of people complain about the amount of email they get, that they don’t have enough time to process it all. I’ve a suggestion for you people: UNSUBSCRIBE. If you are receiving more email than can be processed, then you are just wasting precious bandwidth. In fact, this is a classic networking problem: if the processing rate of a given stream is larger than the incoming rate — the solution is to slow down the publisher or the result will be message loss. For example, with TCP, it is the receiving side’s job to throttle the sender. In other words, stop subscribing to things you are not going to read! (I told you this was a touchy subject)
Anyway, I actually come to you today to discuss the content of emails for ultimate efficiency. I happen to work in a job where the major importance for me is emailing customers on how to use and diagnose a highly technical product. For the most part, the people I am emailing are intelligent tech people, however their soft skills leave a lot of room for improvement. Often times, I need to find out a lot of information from a customer to better serve them. After I carefully explain each item of information that I am requesting and why I am requesting it, I often find that the customer will only respond to the first or second question, and ignore the rest of my email that I worked so hard on composing. So here is my first suggestion:
1. Use numbered lists
Numbered lists are a great way to let people know that I want you to look at each number very carefully. When executed properly, the customer will answer the questions inline which just makes me jump for joy. Sometimes, for the very difficult customers, I will put instructions at the top of the email like “Please answer every one of the questions below”. Even with these explicit instructions, I get a few outliers who ignore items. These people cannot be helped, and you will be wondering forever how they retain employment.
Moving on. Like I said, I work with a highly technical product with smart customers. This means that I have to be halfway intelligent myself, otherwise I would not be able to help them. That being said, save the pissing matches for another day. Email is not the time nor the place to prove you are smarter than the other guy, and this brings me to point 2:
2. Be short and direct with information
When you add content for the sole purpose of trying to sound smart, you look like an asshole. Don’t try and blow peoples minds with information they don’t need to know. Get to the point, and get to it fast with clarity.
Finally, how to deal with rude people. You’ve all gotten rude email before, and you always spend extra time thinking about how to respond to it. Rude email is typically not something you should get too concerned over, in my opinion. People act tougher and meaner via email because they’re not looking directly at you. Email is so impersonal that is easy for anyone to be rude. I have two methods for dealing with rude emails:
3a: Be apologetic and shower with kindness.
This passive-aggressive technique is beautifully simplistic, and is a seriously high form of trolling. My wife works in an email-based profession, and this is her technique for dealing with rude people. While I seriously admire the usage of this technique, I tend to avoid it. Instead, I go with:
3b: Be shorter and ruder than them.
This leaves the possibility for two outcomes, 1) They get the point and cool off or 2) the issue escalates to a more serious form of communication, like a conference call. Sometimes, two people are not compatible for email and the only options are to either never communicate or get on the phone. I like getting on the phone, because it’s usually much faster to get to a point and because people are typically much nicer over the phone (again, there are outliers to this rule — some people are just inherently assholes).
Good luck and happy emailing.