Business Communication

Tips for More Effective Email Communication

8 Tips for Better Email Communications

I have a love-hate relationship with email. On the amorous side, email makes business communication fast and much easier than the days of fax machines and overnight shipments of documents and disks. The unsexy side of email is that’s it is overused and abused, causing miscommunication to run amok.

Here are some tips to help make sure the communications we send through email are productive and efficient.

1. Remember the Human

That’s right. Every email you send will be read and interpreted by another human being. One who will read your words through their own lens — applying their personal filters to what they are reading, and assigning emotion to your words without the benefit of seeing or hearing you. 

Ask yourself, “How can I ensure this email comes across as I intend it to?” If the answer is that you can’t, pick up the phone or make a video call instead. 

2. Use Email for Email, Not for Chat

One-line emails say a lot. Nonverbally, they can quicky communicate the following:

  • I’m angry with you
  • You’re not worthy of the time it takes to compose a fully formed message

When you’re in Slack or Teams, or even text messaging on your phone, short messages are expected. Plus, these systems leverage emojis and animated gifs to help lighten up messages that could be construed as terse or angry. 

When you have more to say, use email — and keep it professional. Say hello (not “Hey”), compose your message, and close it with a signoff. Treat it like a letter but keep it short and use bullets to help people read the message quickly. Chances are that if you’re writing a feature article length email, you need a meeting instead.

When you are just zipping out a one-line message, use chat. And feel free to be more casual (but still professional).

3. Use the Subject Line Well

If you want your email to be read, don’t be generic in your subject line. Use it to preview the key message or action item inside the digital envelope, and also to help your recipient find it later in a sea of flagged messages. For example, instead of a subject that reads, “Opinion?”, you could say, “Input Needed Today on Final Design Concept”. The former is ambiguous. The latter is specific and helpful to the recipient.

4. CC Everyone (No, Please Don’t)

Try your best to send the email “To” one person — the one who is supposed to fully read it and take action. If there is more than one person who needs to take action, then by all means include any others in the “To” field.

Reserve the CC field for people who need to know what’s going on but are neither expected to take action nor respond. Also, ask yourself if everyone in the CC field really needs to be included. 

5. Use “Reply All” Sparingly 

If you and your team are more careful to avoid overusing the CC field by being more conscious of who really needs to be included in an email, then you should naturally use the “Reply All” feature less often. 

Before you Reply All, stop and think, “Does everyone on this chain really need to see my reply?” If the answer is “No,” then consider only replying to the people who need to be included. 

Now, if you’re using reply all to cover your butt due to a toxic culture, that’s a whole different problem that this article can’t solve. 

6. Proofread

Emails that are full of errors will damage your professional credibility. Slow down, take a breath, and re-read your emails before hitting Send.

7. Avoid Angry Mail

I’ve written and sent a few emails when I’ve been angry. Each one ranks high on my list of least professional moments during my 25-year career. 

When you’re angry, take a step back. Don’t respond right away. 

I actually find that writing out a draft response helps me get my thoughts together. I compose it in Word or some other program to ensure it never actually gets sent. Once I’ve settled down, I pick up the phone or schedule a face to face conversation to talk with the other party.

And if that can’t happen, I edit my Angry Mail message down to something supportive and factual, remembering not to put anything in my response that I would not be fine seeing on a billboard with my name on it.

8. Set Expectations for Response Times

This last tip is even more important with remote work because it’s harder to pop in on a colleague to check in. Be sure people know what kind of turnaround time they can expect from you when it comes to responding to email. This way they know when they need to follow-up with you, if at all. 

I respond to all emails from colleagues and clients within 24 hours — and they know that. If I can’t respond fully within that time, I still respond with a confirmation of receipt and a timeframe that they can plan on. For example:

Hi Julie,

Thanks for sending me the workshop plan for next week’s session. I won’t be able to fully review it today but will be sure to have it back in your hands by mid-day Thursday. 

Michael

Julie now knows I received the email and did not miss it, and when she can expect to hear back from me with the completed action item.

It’s All About Helping Each Other

Remember that emails, and chat and text messages for that matter, are stripped of much of the nuance we get from more robust ways of communicating like face to face conversations. When we have the benefit of nonverbal communication like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language we can more easily assign meaning to the messages we are receiving. 

When it comes to email, we all need to take the extra time to help set each other up for success.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
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Listening is a Powerful Tool

You, Me, and No-one Else

I’ve got some terrific mentors. I’m lucky. I think of two of them often, especially when I’m trying to be sure I listen well and avoid rushing others. As a creative person, it’s sometimes hard to stay in the moment and listen when the thing that someone else is saying is sparking a great idea in my head.

But, there’s a place for brainstorming and collaborating, and there’s a place for listening quietly — and absorbing. Truly listening means hearing the person out, reserving judgement, and doing the hard work of interpreting, evaluating, and understanding what the other person is saying.

Try it.

Focus on your coworker, client, partner, child, or parent today. Listen to what is said, and zoom in on the feelings or ideas behind the words. Don’t let yourself begin to compose a response in your head. Make them feel like in that very moment and for as long as is needed for them to finish, there’s nothing else in the world that matters.

Your full attention is a wonderful gift, and a powerful communications tool.

This post was originally published on September 10, 2019 and updated on October 6, 2020.

Photo by Luke Ellis-Craven on Unsplash
Virtual Meeting Preparation Tips

Make Your Virtual Meetings Matter

Good meetings are planned well, and then facilitated in a way that makes them productive. Here are some tips for running effective virtual meetings and, more importantly, making them matter to your team.

Have a Clear Purpose and an Agenda

Be sure the reason for the meeting is clear to you. Then, communicate it out to the invitees beforehand. This way they can come to the table ready to contribute appropriately.

I use this list of potential goals when planning a meeting, which I got from a podcast featuring Mamie Kanfer Stewart. If the goal doesn’t fit into one of these six categories, then I likely don’t really need a meeting:

  1. Connect
  2. Align
  3. Decide
  4. Ideate/brainstorm
  5. Plan
  6. Produce

Set Ground Rules

Conducting meetings remotely isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be quite painful, for hosts and attendees alike. The technology doesn’t always work as well as it should, and the many distractions your team has in the remote setting can be numerous (and beyond your control). When I host virtual meetings, I make sure I set some ground rules right at the start. Here’s my list of possible requests from the group (I may use one or more of these depending on who is invited, and the number of people on the call):

  • Mute your audio when you’re not speaking (if there is a large group)
  • Mute your audio only if there is background noise (for small groups — I like lively discussions whenever possible)
  • Let’s make this a distraction free zone (a simple reminder to silence smartphones, close down email, and set Teams or Slack to Do Not Disturb mode)
  • Keep your video on (or off in certain situations like when the group should be focusing on one speaker only)
  • Find the chat box now because you may need to use it (I often plan for some type of interactivity using chat)
  • Raise your hand if you want to ask a question (for large groups, I have the nonverbal feature turned on in Zoom that allows every participant to do this digitally)

Encourage Participation

A meeting that is interactive will naturally be more engaging. Ask questions, seek input, and if you must talk for a long stretch of time, check in with your group along the way to make sure they are following (or if they need any clarification). 

Take Notes

Designate someone who is responsible for taking notes and make sure they provide a summary of decisions made and action items (noting who is responsible) to all attendees after the meeting. This removes any ambiguity related to who heard what and what everyone is supposed to do next.

Skip the Video (Sometimes)

Video calls can be exhausting because our eyes and brains have more to track than when on an audio-only call. This is especially true with numerous people on the call.

Video calls certainly have their place and should be used when seeing each other makes sense. However, consider when an audio-only phone call is the better option. For my coaching sessions, I often start with a call and then fire up video or a screen share when needed.

Use Visuals

Even when you’re on an audio call, a good visual or two can help support your messages and engage participants. Consider opportunities to share a graphic or bring up a few slides over a screen share. 

Smile Before You Begin 

Even when the meeting is without any video, your audience can still sense your enthusiasm, or lack thereof. Reminding yourself to smile and exude positivity will help make others feel more engaged during the call. 

After all, if you don’t sound like you want to be there, why should they?

Want more tips for better communication when leading remote teams? Talk to me about a one-on-one or group session of my workshop Communicating Your Best When Leading Remote Teams

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels
Listening Skills

Are you really a good listener?

How many people do you know who say they are good listeners, but really aren’t? I’m sure you know more than a few. 

I find that a lot of people who are good problem solvers think that also makes them good listeners. Yes, in many cases good listeners are good problem solvers. But being a good problem solver doesn’t automatically make you a good listener.

True listening (which is very different from hearing) requires work — and there are a lot of barriers. Distractions, your attitude toward the speaker or topic, and even your physical state (e.g., being hungry or tired) can all interfere. But the most common barrier is our tendency to begin formulating our response to what someone is saying rather than waiting for them to finish.

Observe your own behavior for the next week. How often do you find yourself thinking about your response before a speaker is finished? If it’s often, try to remind yourself to stay in the moment. Be quiet, let the speaker talk, and don’t think ahead to how you want to respond. Withhold judgement until you’ve had time to fully understand and comprehend what is being said. And eliminate those distractions you personally have control over (like your phone or smartwatch). 

Did you know that we typically comprehend and retain only 25% of what we hear? Add to that the distracted digital world we live in, and it makes us all poor listeners at times. But there are things you can do to improve your listening skills. The first step is reminding yourself to truly listen so you can stay in the moment and allow yourself to really comprehend what the speaker is communicating to you.

For more listening tips, check out my interactive workshop 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener or my quick class Be a Better Listener.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
Virtual Background Tips for Zoom

Better Virtual Backgrounds for Online Meetings

During some recent Zoom meetings, I’ve received a lot of compliments on my virtual background. I created it after a lot of trial and error, so I thought I would share my final methodology in case it helps you to develop something that works for you.

The Case for a Virtual Background That Works

My home office looks fine when I’m on calls, but I’ve grown tired of tidying up my work table and getting the room lighting right each time I want to jump on a call. Also, when I record my courses and host my online workshops, I want my branding to be present on the screen at all times.

Going Green

After people tell me they like my background, they always ask, “Do you have a green screen?” The answer is no. I’ve had one in my Amazon shopping cart for months, but never bought it because I don’t have room in my office to keep it up all the time — and I know I would get frustrated setting it up several times a week. That’s why I wanted to try to get Zoom’s built in virtual background feature to work for me without a green screen.

My Approach

I use Zoom to rehearse my presentations so I can record them and watch them back. That’s how I find out where my bumpy points are. When rehearsing with the standard virtual backgrounds in Zoom or Teams, I noticed that the main area where the backgrounds had trouble tracking me was around my hair. 

So, that was step one when designing my virtual background. It had to be close in color to my hair so people would not notice if Zoom wasn’t clipping my head perfectly.

The second step was to get the lighting right. I make sure I’m lit from the front (I use a diffused lamp with a daylight bulb that is strategically placed behind my laptop’s screen so it does not reflect in my glasses). I also have a second lamp with a soft white bulb that helps provide additional light and that makes my skin tone a bit warmer.

The third step in my trial and error approach was to make sure I was not lit from behind. If I have another light on in the room that is behind me, Zoom has a harder time tracking my silhouette. But when I minimize light behind me and ensure most of the light in the room is in front of me, Zoom does a better job. 

Lastly, I had to fidget with the logo placement to get it right, and also recruit the help of a friend to make sure the logo wasn’t backwards (like it was for me because I use the “Mirror My Video” setting in Zoom).

It’s Not Perfect

My method isn’t perfect. If I gesture too much sometimes parts of my fingers disappear. I’m sure if I had a green screen the background would look even better. But for now, it works just fine for my needs. 

I hope my approach helps you create a virtual background that works well for you.

Communication Tip: Yes, and…

Yes, and…

I wanted to be an actor when I grew up. While my adult life didn’t go according to that plan, I was fortunate to do a lot of acting when I was younger. I also have a degree in Speech and Theatre Arts and began my career teaching theatre classes to high school students. 

One of my favorite lessons from the theatre is in improvisation, which involves carrying out a scene spontaneously, with no script. My fellow actors and I would make it up as we went along, based only on a theme or topic. Practicing and preforming improv (which is what we called it for short) often led to funny scenes that got the audience laughing, but it wasn’t always comedic. In fact, it was often more difficult when the scenes were serious.

When you are performing without a script, each actor relies on the other to set them up for success. That’s where the phrase “Yes, and…” comes into play. When you use language like this, it confirms agreement with where the story is going, and allows you to build on it. When improvising a scene, you might not literally say “Yes, and…” but that’s the spirit. For example:

ROBERT: “There’s a purple giraffe coming down the street! It must have escaped from that new circus that’s in town!”

DENISE: “I see it, too. I feel like I’m hallucinating. Oh my, now I see a turquoise elephant about 20 feet behind the giraffe. What’s going on?”

By confirming that she sees it too, and then adding to the ridiculous story, Denise supports Robert’s direction for the scene and adds to it so it can move forward. Imagine if she had said, “What? A purple giraffe? I don’t see it.” What’s Robert supposed to do with that response? Momentum shattered. Boom, end of scene.

Try to use this improvisational technique in your business life. If you can confirm what someone else has said to give it validity, and then add to it or expand on it, I’ll bet you’ll have more effective collaborations with your colleagues. And remember, “Yes, and…” is very different from “Yes, but….” The latter conveys disagreement, while the former communicates acceptance.

Promoting Your Personal Brand at Work

Finding the Right Decibel Level for Promoting Yourself at Work

Some people have no problem speaking up about their accomplishments, contributions, and value. In fact, those that do it too much or too loudly at work often come off as arrogant.

Yet those who don’t speak often or loudly enough about what they bring to the table and what they’ve achieved can find themselves easily overlooked. That can really get in the way of getting ahead, especially in certain environments and cultures.

I’m not afraid to speak up, and my time as an actor, educator, and entrepreneur has made me quite comfortable being in the spotlight. Yet in most cases I prefer not to be. I’m an introvert who is comfortable being an extrovert when I need to. However, I am most comfortable when I am quietly helping others succeed. I think that is one of the things that makes me a good teacher and coach

When I began my career, I learned quickly that in business your work doesn’t speak for itself. So, over the years I’ve had to find a decibel level for promoting myself that I’m comfortable with. One that stays true to who I am while also helping me put myself out there so people can understand my value. 

In her book You — According to Them, Sara Canaday calls this topic “Faulty Volume Control” and she likens it to thinking about the volume of your smartphone on a scale of 1 to 10. Based on that idea, I created this graphic to help my clients find their optimal decibel level:

Where do you fall on this scale? I think I’m about a 6. Some days I might lean towards 7. But I used to be a solid 2. It has taken work to turn my self-promotion volume up a few notches. 

Finding your authentic voice and sharing it at a comfortable decibel level will help you communicate your unique value propositions and your contributions appropriately — avoiding the extremes of coming on too strong, or flying so far under the radar that you are virtually invisible. 

You don’t need to go from a 2 to an 8 or from a 10 to a 4. But see if you can move up, or down, a notch or two in the coming months. I think you’ll find that it makes a difference.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Don't Text and Listen

Don’t Text and Listen

Texting while driving is dangerous. We all know it. Yet many people still do it. It’s hard to resist the distraction of your phone buzzing or dinging. We know that phone notifications negatively affect productivity, even if we don’t check them right away. Just knowing there is a message waiting for our attention destroys our ability to concentrate.

In my listening workshop, I teach the importance of preparing yourself to listen. It’s not as easy as you think, and the many distractions that our digital world provides are a big part of the problem.

Here are some tips to help avoid distractions when it’s time to truly listen:

Prepare to listen

From hunger to tiredness, to thinking about the argument you had with your colleague Ricardo this morning, there are a variety of things that can keep you from focusing. Do your best to put yourself into a listening state of mind, and make sure you’re setting yourself up for success.

Avoid multitasking

If you’re checking email or social media during meetings or at the dinner table, you’re not listening. If a conversation you are in is important to you, focus on it and put other tasks aside until it’s finished.

Eliminate potential distractions

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are predictable and some are not. Make sure the ones you can control are avoided. Turn your phone and smartwatch off or put them in Do Not Disturb mode. 

Take notes

Taking notes helps you remember things. It can also help you stay in the moment. The bonus is that it also nonverbally communicates that you are listening to the speaker. How nice of you! However, be careful not to let your note taking become so extensive that you stop listening.

Postpone listening if you cannot concentrate

If you can’t fully invest yourself into the conversation at hand, sometimes it’s best to postpone it until later. Wouldn’t you rather hear this instead of sitting across from someone who is not listening to you: “I’m sorry, but we have an emergency going on and if I meet with you now, I won’t be able to concentrate. Our conversation is important to me. Can we move it to 4 p.m. today?” 

Listening well takes work, and there are a lot of barriers that will naturally get in the way. From your own biases or judgement of the speaker or topic to your physical and emotional state, there are many opportunities for inefficiencies. Don’t let distractions that you can control add to the mix.

Personal Branding: Storytelling (Old Style Pen)

Who’s Telling Your Story?

In business, everyone has a story to tell. In this context, I’m not talking about fairy tales or fictional stories that are simply meant to entertain. I’m talking about crafting a narrative that showcases your unique strengths, talents, and value

I’ve thought about this topic a lot after watching an interesting Ted talk by Carla Harris. She talks about finding people who can help you get ahead at work — and she makes some powerful points about how many people who are really good at what they do often have not put enough work into relationship building. Therefore, there’s nobody else fighting for them. I’ll let you watch the talk to find out what her solution is, but it made me think about a lot of brilliant, talented, and wonderful people I have known during my career who let other people control their narratives. In other words, tell their stories.

Many people think of personal storytelling, or even personal branding, as shameless promotion. That’s often because the people they’ve seen do it have been the types who happily talk about themselves while speaking over others in the room. It doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it shouldn’t be like that at all.

Think of storytelling as a guide — one that carefully leads others along the path to understanding, and remembering, you. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, loud or quiet, passive or assertive, you can find a comfortable way to talk about yourself that showcases the right parts of you to the right people. Then, you can build stronger connections and relationships, and be remembered. 

In a recent episode of Dave Stachowiak’s podcast Coaching for Leaders, he interviewed leadership and entrepreneurship expert and professor Laura Huang about her new book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. On the podcast, Laura shared this wonderful visual of how we show ourselves to others. She said to think of yourself as a diamond. Every diamond has flaws. And every diamond has many beautiful, and different, facets. There’s great power in learning to show the right facets to the right people. You’re not being inauthentic by doing so. It’s still you, but you’re tailoring the story to the audience to ensure you are guiding them in better understanding the aspects of you that matter to them. 

Whether you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, or to sell a product or service, it’s easier to influence others when your communication considers the needs of your audience, and is tailored to tell them the story that they need to hear.

And most importantly, make sure you’re in control of your story.

Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash
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