How not to be read…

Eileen asks "So how do I get my team to read my emails ?"

Actually, she overlooks something very simple and important. Rule one: the nearer the author is to the reader in the company hierarchy the more likely the message will be read. If someone at the very top of Microsoft wants something done I could ignore their mail and wait for the reminders which come from someone nearer me. (In practice I don't because Messrs Gates and Ballmer follow the rules below).  Eileen's only one hop from me so it's nearly certain I'll read her mail, even if she breaks all these rules. What could she do to stop me reading what she has to say ?

Don't get to the point . Typically short term memory is about 7 seconds. Rule two is Give the reader a reason to read the whole message in the first 7 seconds reading. Otherwise they may not bother. If the first 2 dozen words contain "Please can you ...", "It would be great if we...", "I'd like to see..."  that makes it clear action is required, but - it's amazing the number of messages that don't start with the WHAT, but give lengthy WHY - a review of the  state of the world. Their 7 seconds is up  before their closing "Call to action" is read. Messages with PLEASE READ in the subject line beg to be deleted on sight, because it's a fair bet the author doesn't give you anything in the message to make you want to read it.

Only use Outlook. We have IM, SMS texting, Phones, face to face "coffee meetings". Rule Three Choose the Medium which suits your message.Eileen mixes her media more than most people.

Assume I always read in Outlook if I get a message where the key part is in an attachment I can't read on my smartphone, or is text in a graphic which Outlook voice access can't read then the best it can hope for is that it stays in the pile of stuff to come back to. It may just get deleted. Rule four Make sure your message is in the message (body).

Mail the world. Douglas Adams had the idea of a "Someone Else's Problem" (SEP) Field. Behavioural scientists have found When people won't deal with things they think can be left to others. Rule Five. The probability that any reader will act on your mail declines with the other number of readers of the mail.  Of course is there is also the serial forwarder - the person who forwards everything to everyone. Sometimes with the prefixing "Filling your inbox" or FYI.

Write clumsy English. This has got worse with Outlook voice access, which uses punctuation intelligently. Long sentences with little punctuation are even harder to understand when read by a machine. Here's an example: The first 99 words of a mail. 3 sentences 1 comma, and NO IDEA WHAT HE WANTS.

Further to blank’s email to all employees I wanted to follow-up with a UK specific reminder and call to action about [blank] '07.  In FY06 we introduced some significant changes to the annual blank blank process as part of the launch of the blank initiatives.  In FY07 we are consolidating those changes and making further adjustments based on feedback received from across Microsoft – all with the continued aim of ensuring our blank blank process is world class and focuses on driving business results through quality blanks, transparency in our approach to blank blank and greater manager empowerment & responsibility.

Note the use of "Introduced some significant changes to" where the word "Changed" would have done. I recently pointed my Dad to my post about this kind of writing. He worked for a big American company too, and bought people copies of Gowers' Plain Words. Maybe I should follow his lead. My copy of the 1986 edition has this quote from George Orwell

A Scrupulous writer in every sentence he writes will ask himself ... what am I trying to say ? What words will express it ... and he probably asks himself can I put it more shortly. But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing open your mind and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you - even think your thoughts for you to a certain extent - and at need the will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning, even from yourself.

Even with out the text, I evangelize Gowers' message. Be brief; be clear; be human. Eileen is. Gates and Ballmer are, so is Gordon Frazer. It's not universal.

Comments (5)
  1. Anonymous says:

    A draft post which ended up going on the spike referred to Lyn Truss’s book "Talk to the Hand: the utter

  2. Anonymous says:

    One of the Microsoft internal discussion lists has had an interesting thread over the last couple of

  3. Anonymous says:

    I mentioned the post that I lost last night and that it referred to Clive James, a writer whose words

  4. Melissa says:

    One other tip for not being getting your message across:

    If you want to maximize information loss, say two unrelated things in the same message.  Want to have a party where no one comes?  Easy, send a message entitled "Out of Town!" and then say "I’ll be out of town for the next two weeks.  I get back on the 27th.  When I get back, we’ll have a big party at my place.". Most readers will read/think "Out of town, yeah, I know, yadda yadda" and skip the rest.  Make your email message about just one thing.  If you want to say two things send two messages.

    Unless, that is, its your Christmas update letter to your relatives and they’re hanging on your every word.

  5. AdamV says:

    A really useful post. More soft-skills for the techies to master.

    I find if I am writing an email for consumption by end-users (eg about a planned server downtime) I think very hard about how to write it in the least ambiguous way. For this specific type of email to be read and understood:

    Avoid any misunderstanding about when – "tomorrow, Tuesday the 7th of October at 7 pm BST…" (tomorrow / today etc are too easily misunderstood when read at the ‘wrong’ time)

    Tell them what is affected (but also confirm what is not) – "Email will be unavailable through Outlook, web access or mobile / PDAs. All other services are available including file access, printing, apple scrumping and caber tossing".

    If relevant, include "where" facts as well – people sometimes can’t grasp that the email server being turned off at head office also affects them in their regional location (or conversely that it does not, if they have a local server – how are they to know the infrastructure you have in place?)

    Highlight all the most important facts in bold to assist the skim readers – not shouty capitals nor colour which may not be visible on all devices or printers (for the 5% of people who feel the need to print it for reference).

    Use an expiry date on the email so it can be ignored by anyone returning to work after the event.

    A [non-IT] colleague once asked why I put in so much detail in these emails. I pointed out that half an hour before, someone had asked me why I did not put in more information, and than no matter how much or little I always had at least one person asking something which was either plainly stated or easily inferred ("So after you turn off the email server for half an hour on Saturday, will I still be able to save files on Monday morning?").

    There is no perfect way to keep everyone happy, just ways to inform as many as possible and deal with as few queries as possible.

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