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Email: The Numbers Game

Early this morning one of our clients returned our Friday phone call. She explained that she had been out of the office all day on Friday. While she was gone, she had received 70 email messages and 5 voice mail messages.

Given her day away from the office, we were grateful to hear from her so soon, especially since our message wasn’t urgent. We are guessing that she simply decided to handle her few phone messages first, before getting into the dozens of email messages.

Email is a numbers game. That’s why we should avoid it when we can and when other methods are more effective.

Avoid Email When

  • Sharing sensitive information or saying no. Sensitive information and saying no require two-way communication. When possible, talk in person so that you can “read” body language and tone of voice. Or use the phone to get voice cues and exchange points of view.
  • Giving performance feedback. Like sensitive information, performance feedback requires two-way communication. I will never forget one of my first supervisors, who propped up a clipboard on my desk, with the note, “Lynn, here are all the things I had to correct that you did wrong yesterday. Please be more careful.” The clipboard was positioned in a way that everyone walking past my desk could read it. It was my second day on the job.
  • Brainstorming. Email is too cumbersome for this purpose. Instead, use an in-person or online meeting or a teleconference. These methods allow you to elicit everyone’s ideas.
  • Apologizing. Email may work in this situation. But a phone call or in-person meeting allows two-way communication. For a formal apology, a carefully worded letter can communicate your sincerity and care.
  • Saying thank you for a big favor or contribution. Although thank you’s are welcome in any medium, a two-word thank you in email isn’t worth opening and deleting. To communicate special thanks, say more, and send a handwritten card or note whenever possible.
  • Expressing condolences. Like thank you’s, condolences are effective in any medium, but handwritten notes and cards are preferable when a mailing address is available. Your recipient can save these messages and read them when they are needed most.

Naturally, there are many reasons to communicate by email. But when another method works as well or better, use it. Given the numbers game we play with email, your phone call, handwritten card, or letter is more likely to stand out, communicate your support, and encourage a response. Perhaps it will do all three.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.