If you’re like most people, you will know what it feels like to agonise over an email.
Often it’s the wording that torments you, or uncertainty about the grammar and punctuation. But sometimes, it’s email itself that’s the problem. Sometimes you shouldn’t be using email at all.
Recognising this can be hard. So here are five signs that you need to step away from the keyboard and reach for the phone instead.
1. You’re nervously watching the clock and refreshing your inbox
There’s nothing like the phone if you need immediate feedback. It’s hard to ignore a ringing phone – and once the person you’re calling has picked up, it’s hard for them to avoid a direct question. (Admittedly this may not always work with politicians.)
Emails are different. They can arrive in an inbox among dozens (or even hundreds) of other unread messages. Even if yours does get read, it may be put aside ‘for later’ and then forgotten.
If we’re honest, sometimes we know this. An email places the responsibility on somebody else. If things aren’t moving, we can easily say ‘I can’t do anything until they respond!’
No, if you need something to happen now, pick up the phone. (And if you’re worried about calling in the first place, bear in mind that the urgency of your request probably justifies your call.)
2. You’ve got an exciting new idea, and you just can’t keep your email short
If you’ve got a new idea and you’d like to discuss it, an email can be an excellent starting point. It allows you to prime the reader on what you’re going to discuss, so they don’t go into the discussion ‘cold’.
I think [insert bright idea here] could make us a lot more efficient and save us money.
Can I call you to discuss this soon?
Using email actually to explain an idea, however, is much harder. There’s often too much to cover.
A tell-tale sign that this is happening is if your email contains lots of paragraphs outlining possible scenarios. Another is if you find yourself anticipating lots of objections. In both cases, you’re trying to use email to pre-empt a discussion – one best had over the phone or in person.
It’s tempting to assume that the email just needs more editing. This may be the case, but remember: the very best editing boils writing down to its essential ideas. If you’re dealing with a complex idea, or one that needs a lot of supporting information, editing can do only so much.
3. You’re typing an email with your fists
Impulse control is much harder when something is easy. The biscuit barrel is far more tempting when it’s next to your desk than if it’s across the office. (Full disclosure: the office biscuit barrel is next to the writer’s desk.)
So the impulse to purge your frustration with a quickfire email is hard to resist. But you usually should.
Your anger may be about some legitimate complication or complaint. You may well have a good solution or deserve an apology. But respond angrily and you risk focusing the conversation on the conflict rather than the concern.
The same applies to your reader. They’re likely to receive your angry email and respond in kind. And before you know it, any hopes of discussing the actual concern will have been lost in the crossfire.
Unfortunately, the situation may be difficult and unpleasant to resolve anyway. But if fixing the problem is your priority, the phone or (even better) meeting in person are usually safer bets. Apart from anything else, any misunderstandings will be easier to spot and quicker to clear up.
4. You’re writing about a sensitive subject and agonising over your exact wording
It’s natural to think that if you could only find the right words, your intentions would be as obvious and transparent to your reader as they are to you.
In reality, the words you carefully weighed in the balance may be misread or misunderstood. You can control how you write your message down to the last comma, but you can’t control how other people will read it.
Often it’s astonishing how much our apparently obvious meaning can be misunderstood. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. In person, we use innumerable cues to gauge the effect of our words, from facial expressions to long pauses. We’re so good at reading them that we don’t even have to think about it.
By tackling a sensitive subject by email, you deprive yourself of all of this feedback, and create a situation where you have to second-guess somebody else’s reactions. Email may seem like the easy way out – but it often causes more problems than it solves. Picking up the phone will usually make everyone’s life easier.
5. You’re criticising someone else, or responding to criticism
If you’re criticising someone by email, be very careful. Most of us have natural ‘brakes’ that prevent us from pushing criticism too far. For example, we will usually stop at the sight or sound of someone getting upset (and for good reason). But with email, our brakes don’t always work as well as they should.
In person, you may also stop when it’s clear that somebody ‘gets it’, but email doesn’t allow you this option. You might not need to write 1,000 words and counter every possible objection; you may find that a phone call solves the problem quickly.
But what if I have no choice?
Unfortunately, sometimes a phone conversation or meeting will be impossible. You just have to bite the bullet and write an email. Here’s our best advice on those hazardous situations when you have to write a difficult email.
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