Using Email as an Effective Tool

I send way too many emails in a day. My inbox is very intermingled with my to do list and often represents some form of it. More relevant though is that email is a primary means of how I accomplish work. Being a PM I work cross functionally with other teams (from marketing, to engineering, to sales, to BD, to other product teams) and of course customers. Having to work so cross functionality I’ve found a lot of hacks I use to be able to better accomplish your goals with email, here is a collection of some of those.

Let me be clear, this is not another post about inbox 0, how I swapped to slack. This instead is how I use email to more effectively communicate and get people to engage. In other words it is about making emails more useful, not just getting through them faster. And onto those tips.

Don’t leave a document in a document

Often times I’ve found folks will collaborate in a document during a meeting or take notes there. After the meeting folks will email the document around, but few seldom actually open. Reasons may be they’re not logged in on their phone or it may be they just don’t care that much, I’m not really sure. What I do know is that by taking the notes and action items from the doc and including them in the email you will get more people paying attention to them. If you really want to get good at this when there is significant revisions of a work in progress document, re-circulate the updated version via email. Again not just a link to it, but the document itself.

Mail merge isn’t just for marketing

Years ago I sent a company wide request for feedback (to about 120 people). I got less than 3 responses. I ran an experiment the next time I needed the same thing using a mail merge so my same email seemed personal and was from me to them instead of some large alias. I got a response rate of over 45%. Use this wisely… not every email you send needs a response. A broad update can absolutely be to team@, but when you need to get actual feedback and people don’t seem to chime in this approach works great.

Conversation begets conversation

Often times when there is an email to team@ folks just simply click archive. A great tip for managers and leadership is to chime in on these emails right away. It can help promote some positive discussion and cause folks to actually take notice of updates that might otherwise end up archived. Be careful of the inverse of this though, replying to all mass emails can create a culture where everyone thinks it’s their job to +1 and thumbs up things. There is a balance to this one between team productivity and team morale.

Text is boring

Email is not like reading a novel (except when my colleague Daniel Farina writes them), if I wanted to read a novel I’d actually go read a novel. For email I want the clear concise points broken out. You should think about how easy it is to read on a phone. If a single paragraph consumes my entire screen you’ve lost your readers attention and that content goes else where. A number of things can help for readability:

  • Short paragraphs and usage of line breaks
  • Bullets are your friend (aren’t you enjoying this list already?)
  • Numbers are also great as they call attention to themselves

Bold/italics can also be useful, but assume many people use text only clients so you need to be careful. Also really don’t over-use these

Add extra tooling

Gmail and Outlook are both continuing to improve over time. With the demise of Inbox Gmail itself is seeing some more of those features. Reminders about old un-responded to emails are great. But you can do much more by adding in a third party tool. Boomerang and yesware are two popular ones. These can help with things like returning an email to your inbox in a couple weeks so it can be out of sight for now but come back later. You can also schedule emails to be sent later at a time that may be more ideal for someone to read it, instead of sending it at midnight what about 9am so it appears more top of their inbox?

Do you know about muting?

Muting is the single greatest feature within gmail. Email is a great place for an archive and history, it is a great place to clearly communicate things, it can be a horrible place when it comes to generating a bunch of noise.

Personally I subscribe to lots of lists. I have filters for many of those, but many I actually want to see. That doesn’t mean I care about every response to every thread on those lists. When engineering is discussing whether to use CircleCI vs. Travis I see that the discussion is happening but don’t care too much on the outcome. Mute will silence that entire thread and move it to archived for me. It will only re-appear if I am explicitly added to the To:

The fact that it persists in my archive is key for me. If I want to go back later and search to see the outcome I can, but I don’t have to create a new rule, or archive each reply to the thread.

These are just a few

These are only a few tips, but ones I’ve found extremely useful on two sides. The first is being more control of my inbox so it doesn’t control me. A workflow that works for me which includes mute, filtering lists, scheduling emails for later helps with that. The second is to me email isn’t something I have to do, it is a tool to work more effectively. Being intentional on how I construct messages, when I send them, and what is clearly communicated is key for my job.

I’m curious, what are some of your favorite email tips @craigkerstiens.