One of the greatest benefits to using e-mail is the ability to converse with a group of people asynchronously over a large geographic area. Just add any number of e-mail addresses into the To:, CC: and BCC: fields, write your e-mail and hit Send. Off goes your message to be read and responded to by everyone everywhere at any time. And that’s when the trouble begins.
Spaghetti on a Plate
Unlike real-time environments such as conference calls or meetings where the directionality of a statement can be implied by the circumstances – “She’s asking me that question because she’s looking at me.” or “That’s a question for the entire group.” - e-mail messages rarely queue the directionality of comments or questions. Consequently, any and/or many of the people on the thread begin weighing in … via ”Reply All” of course. Now, instead of a communication that was intended to keep a group informed while also directing certain comments to some and seeking specific answers from others, you have spaghetti on a plate. A whole bunch of unorganized information is being delivered to a large group of people with no one directing traffic. Think Tokyo train platforms at rush hour.
Direct Your Comments and Questions with Specific Indicators
To reduce the amount of e-mail flying around on any particular thread and to minimize the potential confusion and misguided contributions that result, try using these simple e-mail formatting practices to keep everyone informed, while also clearly directing certain actions and securing the specific information needed:
- Background – Similar to the office memos from the Days of Yore, after introducing the subject of the e-mail to the entire group, provide everyone with a quick backgrounder on the topic. Start a new paragraph and begin it with “Background:” to make sure everyone knows that this is just background information.
- [Name:] - Whenever you need a specific person to do something or provide a response to a question, start another paragraph and list their – “[Name]:” – before describing what you need done or answered. Note, this is a good place to insert any deadlines by starting a new sentence with “Deadline” then inserting a date-specific deadline.
- Open Question - If you want to invite discussion, clearly indicate it with an action-specific paragraph opening, such as “Question for the Group:”. Then, when replying to the comments you’re receiving, make sure to direct those comments by using the person’s name to whom your are responding, e.g., “Eric: That was a good point. What if we…”
Order Arising From Chaos
Whenever you include a number of people on an e-mail thread, you are effectively speaking to a group. Be conscious of the risk of confusion and the likelihood of unproductive activity if you don’t direct the conversation in a logical and meaningful manner. Adopting the communication conventions listed above will increase the amount of actual communication that occurs, as well as reduce the confusion that results. In the end, more people will get more done with less back and forth.
Oh, and if it’s truly an engaged conversation that you seek, schedule a real-time meeting, conference call or web conference. Real-time interfacing methods will always be the best way to tackle these situations.
© 2011, Paul H. Burton. All rights reserved.