Helping People Send You Better, Action-Oriented Emails

You likely get a lot of emails. Most of them aren't action-oriented emails. By that I mean, they're not designed for you to process them quickly. Let me share how I learned / developed this framework. (And yes, this week I seem to be focused a lot on communication.)

“I notice you're not staring at your phone,” was maybe the most unexpected line at lunch. The two guys I was eating with followed up by sharing a game they often play – where everyone puts their phones in the middle of the table before lunch starts.

There's only one rule: the first person to pick up their phone buys lunch. Now, if you know me, I'm not playing that game. I always like to pay for lunch. That's me and my damn generosity (as my buddy Steve likes to say).

I don't care about Inbox Zero.

I won't be sharing with you some of the stuff I've heard before about email. I don't have special folders and it's not about inbox zero for me. Those may be great techniques but I don't use them. My buddy Tony has a different approach – he deletes everything and hopes you'll mail him back. I don't do that either.

I'm guessing most of what's in your inbox isn't action-oriented emails

Most of the work emails I get are from my own staff. Your role may be different – dealing with clients or partners all day long. If that's the case, these strategies may or may not work perfectly for you.

Since the majority of my emails are from staff, you can easily imagine what they're about:

  • Summary of a meeting they were in
  • Summary of a challenge they're facing
  • Highlight of a request they have
  • Request to start or kill a project or feature
  • Copying me to keep me in the loop
  • Advice request

And if you get email like I do, your inbox is likely filled with the same.
So if that's what's in your inbox too, how are you solving it?

Step One: Have Better Meetings

I know. You weren't expecting a suggestion about meetings when we're talking about email management. But here's the thing – your staff have tons of decisions to make (albeit smaller ones that you do). And to do that, they need context.

They need to know who to say yes to, and who to ignore. They need to know about some of the stuff that's floating up at the political level. And they need to know what you think about all of it.

That's broad context. And that can only come from you.

That's why I have a daily meeting (20 minutes) with my team. I hear what's going on with them, but more importantly, I share with them everything they need to know so they can make better suggestions and decisions.

It also gives them time to share things that they might want to email. Just them sharing that stuff reduced your inbox by 10%.

Beyond that, they can ask the little questions that were likely going to arrive as email too. That's another 5-10% that just went bye bye.

But that's all low-hanging fruit; you're not impressed. Let's see if I can do better with step #2.

Step Two: Have staff write Action-Oriented Emails

Let's assume that  you've given your staff context. Let's further assume that they then hit a decision point where they want your help. The trick, at that point, is to teach them how to write an action-oriented email.

What's an action-oriented email? Here's how I define it:

It's an email that lets me reply quickly & easily, and allows them to take action.

That's a pretty specific definition but it works.
To explain how it works, let's look at three simple examples.

Example One: Try Something New

Sometimes one of my staff have an idea.

They want to try something new (take a small risk, add a new feature, research a topic, etc).

Normally they'd write an email asking broadly how I feel about a topic. Then we'd trade three emails getting into details. Then I'd approve.

Instead of that approach (which is a lot more email than any of us want), they do something different.

They write one email, with:

  • Summary of the thing they want to try
  • Articulation of risk
  • Potential upside
  • Potential downside
  • Maximum effort
  • Request to give it a shot

My reply is one word: Yes. And they're off and running.

Example Two: Need to Make a Choice

Sometimes my folks are presented with a decision they have to make. They might be in a meeting or asked something in Slack.

But remember that I meet with them often to give them context. So they can count on that context to help them understand the request being made.

Now, I'm guessing you have smart folks working for you, like I do. So that means they have ideas. My job now isn't to give them ideas – it's to help them move on their own. Sometimes it may mean that I have to ask for my own meeting with them. But that's not normal.

Normally I get a different kind of email.

  • It summarizes the external request.
  • They articulate Option One
  • They articulate Option Two (& maybe Three)
  • They define they're Own Preference

My reply is one letter: 2. (or 1. or 3.) And they're off and running.

Example Three: They Need My Help

You're noticing that I'm replying with one number (in case 2) or a yes or no (in case 1). But sometimes I have to reply with a word.

Sometimes there's no getting around it. They know, for whatever reason, that the issue they're dealing with requires that I get involved. It can be a call or a meeting. Whatever it is, they know what they want. Now they just have to ask. To the point, with clarity, and with their own context – so I can be at my best.

So they write me a short, focused email telling me why they need me. And they end with a simple question – which day is best?

My reply is one word: Wednesday (or some other day of the week).

Action-Oriented Emails exist because I like Action, not because I don't like Email

At this point  you're wondering if I just hate email. And that's not the case. But I hate making my staff wait on me. I hate slowing them down.

And I know the best way to help them is to make sure we're always clear about what we're trying to do, what strategies we're pursuing, and what actions we're taking.

To that end, and also because I can end up getting caught in meetings or traveling, I've helped them learn a way to use action-oriented emails to get what they need so they can keep moving forward.

And you want to hear something crazy? Many of my friends and family have learned it too.