November 21, 2018

Seven Simple Tips for Effective Leadership by Email


Email. Most of us can’t remember a time without it nor what we would do if it went away.

Email has truly changed the way we communicate and interact with our co-workers, family and friends.

Everyday, almost 300 billion emails are sent — around 90% of them being spam or viruses.

Genuine emails are sent by about 1.9 billon email users which translates into about 15 authentic emails per day that most of us have to deal with. For some of us (me included), the authentic email number approaches more like 150.

If you lead any kind of effort, email will be a vital tool in you leadership arsenal. Far too often, email is misused and frankly abused by some simply because they don’t adhere to a few simple tips to make emails more effective, informational and actionable These tips include:

Tip #1: Keep It to Less Than Half A Page

Most email is way too long. The trick to an effective email is to really distill down what you want to say in less than half a page. You can put additional content below the fold but don’t expect them to be read.

Tip #2: Spend Time Writing a Good Subject

Subjects make or break an email. Just ask any MailChimp or AWeber user who does A/B testing on email subject lines that get people to open and click on links.

The same holds true for your email subjects (although if you are the boss, I’m sure it will get read eventually).

A good subject will put your email ahead of all others in your teams queue. It also shows that you care enough to spend the time to inform your team before they even open it.

Tip #3: Use Whitespace, Bullets and Fonts for Ease of Reading

The physical appearance of your message helps get the message across. Use whitespace liberally. Keep your paragraphs short. Bulletize critical points. Use the proper font and don’t all cap anything — it looks awful and makes you seem aggressive.

Tip #4: Make It Clear What Action Needs to be Taken

Any email communication should spell out the action that needs to be taken. Without that, your email is just wasted and ends up clogging your teams inbox.

It’s perfectly fine to send out information only emails but put that up front so that the action is clear — read if you are interested.

Tip #5: Read and Edit at Least 3 Times

I’m really bad at self editing. I tend to send off emails too quick and that gets me into trouble.

I try to read and edit my email a minimum of three times. The more important the email, the more revisions, edits and time I spend on it.

This also helps emotionally driven email exchanges where in the heat of passion, you may say something you regret (or worst, start a flame war).

Tip #6: Choose Your Words Carefully

Email does a poor job of conveying emotion and tone. The words you use and how you use them can be interpreted in different ways by different people.

Avoid emotionally charged subjects or situations where tone, tenor and emotion are hard to express in prose. Not following this advice will usually lead to flame wars that do no one any good.

The best single advice I have received on this is to:

Picture the people in front of you and type as if you are talking directly to them.

If you keep that in mind, then you will craft emails that will be thoughtful, informational and productive.

Tip #7: Keep the Questions to One or Two

One of my pet peeves is having too many questions in an email. It’s really frustrating to have to read through and answer lots and lots of questions.

It’s actually counter productive and reduces the time saving nature of an email exchange. If you have to answer more than one or two questions, then it’s best to have either a phone call or face to face meeting with all involved.

Too often, the back and forth of questions, answers, more questions and still more answers completely tunes out other participates and leaves everyone confused.

If you have lots of questions to ask, pick up the phone and then summarize the discussion and decisions in an email.

Applying These Tips to Effective Leadership by Email

Leadership has always been about communicating the shared vision of a group of people. As a leader, your job is to clearly and accurately disseminate information so your supporters can make decisions and get things done.

One thing that I have found particularly effective is to have tags that clue your colleagues into the action they need to take. This has saved several of the groups I’m involved with countless hours of time and frustration.

The technique follows a simple set of actions that groups tend to do when they interact in person. These are: information dump, discussion/debate and action/resolution.

Informational Means Just That

A lot of time is wasted figuring out if an email needs action right away or whether it can wait. I find that a simple Info: tag at the beginning of a subject line makes a world of difference. It gives the reader a clue as to the importance of the information, is easy to filter and shows that the person thought about the value of your time.

Discussion Allows Debate and Elaboration

Typically, once information is disseminated, the next logical step is discussion.

Discussion via email can be tricky since there are usually lots and lots of questions. The best way to deal with this is to pose the discussion topic free form and have people comment on their feelings and reactions.

The subject tags for this could be Discussion: or Input: since those show that the topic is something that the group needs to pay attention to.

Another important aspect of discussion is to put a time limit on them. That can also be done in the subject line as well.

Action or Resolution so There is Closure

One thing that bogs down any group is decision making. Successful groups realize that making timely decisions (good, bad or indifferent) is why they are successful.

If you need to make decisions via email, then it’s best to call that out right in the subject.

Tags like Vote: or Action: go a long way in putting the email at the top of the list for your team to deal with.

Once a vote is taken, then a Resolution: or Decision: tag can be used to communicate that the topic has been acted upon.

Examples of Email Subject Lines

Listed below are a few examples of what I consider good email subject lines for effective leadership by email:

  • Subject: Info: Top Ranked Restaurants in Our Neighborhood

  • Subject: Info: Bay Bridge Closed This Weekend

  • Subject: Info: Latest Company Rankings in Inc.

  • Subject: Discussion by 6/7: How to Coordinate our Fundraising Activities

  • Subject: Discussion by 8/2: Best Way to Promote Gadget XYZ

  • Subject: Input by 2/25: Agenda for Off-site

  • Subject: Vote by 12/2: Where to Hold Our Holiday Party?

  • Subject: Vote by 3/4: Color to Paint the Building

  • Subject: Action by 1/15: Updated Bio For Website

  • Subject: Action by 4/10: All Expenses Submitted to Accounting

  • Subject: Resolution: Holiday Party is at Joe’s

  • Subject: Decision: The Building Will Be Painted Blue

Of course, every group is different and will respond to different tags and keywords. As a leader, you will need to experiment a little with what will make your group effective.

It is worth spending the time up front to set the ground rules, come up with your own process and refine it as you go. You will find that your email correspondence will be more effective and less time consuming. You will also find that your group gets more done and feels that their valuable time is spent on things that really matter — not a bunch of email cluttering their inbox.