Email is Still Here... and can be a Useful Leadership Tool
Everyone hates email. Everyone loves predicting its demise. A few quick examples:
In 2011, Adam Sherwin, writing in the UK’s Independent, speculated that young workers disliked email and progressive companies would eliminate it entirely.
In 2014, Marc Leiser wrote that, “Email has simply lost its value and is actually having a negative effect. It is declining, thanks to new tools that we use to communicate with each other in place of the email.” His article was a confident prediction of the coming death of email.
In 2015, Inc. contributing editor John Brandon predicted that by 2020 it would be replaced by another messaging channel.
So the end is coming, right? Ummm… maybe not. In fact, just the opposite. Statista’s data, shown below in chart format, clearly paints the opposite picture. We are sending billions of emails a day, and the volume of emails is only growing as is the importance of effective email communication in the workplace.
What should we take from this reality? Simply this: email is here to stay. If you want to lead and communicate with your audience, you’d better be good at using it.
Here’s how you can intentionally use email to write as a leader.
First, begin with intention.
The practice of leadership communication begins with clarity of purpose, which is then followed by clarity of thought. This means you must begin by asking yourself, “Who is my audience, and how do I want to influence or inspire them to act?”
In our work with leaders and their teams, we rarely see this kind of intention put into email. Instead, emails are written as “stream of consciousness” messages that take the form of “information dumps” (think of the content “brick” that the reader has to wade through to reach some sort of conclusion), “context deserts” (think of the email that requires you to read five prior emails just to understand what the situation is), or “memos masquerading as emails” (did you really need to put 1000 words in a message?).
So be sure you know who your real audience is and how you want to move them to action before you draft your leadership email.
Second, make sure your email communication has three critical components.
At The Humphrey Group, we teach our clients to organize their thinking using a tool we call the Leader’s Script. While we usually focus on oral communication when introducing this tool to them, it absolutely applies to emails where you want to drive action. The Script has three critical components, which you should write out and ensure they are in your message:
- The subject: What is this email about? You want to be as focused as possible without being overly narrow. For example, having “changes” as your subject would be too vague. A more focused, “changes to our operating model, and how they will impact you” would be more precise. The subject should appear in… the subject of your email message.
- The message: This is the most critical component of your email. The message is a statement of personal conviction and belief you want the audience to hear, and ultimately to adopt. For example, “I believe that though these changes will take time to implement, they will help us be more competitive in the marketplace.” If your message is too long-winded, too generic, or too negative, it won’t inspire. So make it a single focused idea you can get behind.
- The call to action: Since the point of leadership communication is to inspire action, all effective emails should end with a call to action. This should be concrete (e.g. explains exactly what should/will happen) and time stamped (by when). Often in email the call to action is self-directed (e.g. you say what you, or your team or company will do) but it can also ask the audience to act.
By having these components your email will be poised to engage and drive action.
Third, flesh it out (and be prepared to spend the time).
While the subject, message, and call to action are the three most important components of a leadership email, they aren’t the only ones.
If you need to avoid a “context desert” email you may want to start your email with some facts or the backstory for readers, before sharing your message. If you need to make a strong case for your message, you may want to include a series of bullets or key points in the body of the email. And if your email is getting on the longer side you can even recap your message at the end before moving to the call to action.
But whatever you do or don’t need to include, one thing is for sure: be prepared to spend far longer writing than you usually do. In a possibly apocryphal quotation, Mark Twain once sent a letter that started with, “I’m sorry for the long length of this letter, I didn’t have time to be brief.” While the quotation may or not be accurate, the point remains a profound one: it takes a long time to get to brevity. That’s because brevity reflects clarity of thinking.
The good news is that writing with clarity is a skill. As you hone your ability to write to influence, you will become more effective and more efficient, and your email communication skills will improve with it.
With rumors of email’s demise greatly exaggerated, leaders must be prepared to master this important communication channel if they wish to influence and inspire. And while not every email is worthy of the time and intention talked about in this post, for those that are you would be wise to begin with intention, organize your thinking, and then take the time to flesh it out. Do these things, and your audiences will thank you for the clarity you share with them.
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