22 Ways To Make Email — and Slack — Not Suck

--If what Alexander Graham Bell invented in 1876 was email – and if the technology invented 95 years later was the telephone – the immediacy of a telephone call would have been seen as an improvement over the delayed back-and-forth communication of email.

Most of us either misuse email ourselves, or we get buried in emails sent by others who misuse email. And many of us hoped that implementing Slack would solve the email problem, but it hasn’t  Until all of our suppliers and customers also use Slack — and untill we know when to use Slack and when not to — we still have a need to make email efficient. And we need to use Slack efficiently!

Here’s a collection of 22 tips on how to make email — and Slack — efficient. I contend that, if each of us followed all 22 tips, we’d…..have better communication – and we’d spend a lot less time on email and Slack each day!

  1. Have Goals – not Email – Drive Your Day. Do not let email drive your day. Your personal goals as well as your organization’s goals should drive your day. Try this technique: Simply do NOT start your day by reading your email!       Rather, start your day by….looking at your goals – your personal goals; your department’s goals; your company’s goals – and start the day by working on a task that helps you reach one of those goals. Then open email.
  2. Manage People Via Email: Wrong.       Don’t manage people via email. That’s not why it was invented, and it doesn’t work well for the task.  Rather, manage people by using time-proven techniques (Mutually agreed “SMART” goals; “Expect and Inspect” techniques; Weekly, one-on-one, in-person meetings; Etc.)  If you have an unhappy message to deliver to someone who works for you, do so in person.  (That said, you might need to use email later to document that message.)
  3. “Talk To Me”: Sometimes it’s just better to talk to someone live. Sometimes what’s needed is a detailed, back-and-forth conversation; sometimes the best response to an email is to walk across the office and talk to the person. Or talk to them on the phone or “chat” via text or Slack.
  4. Synchronous Communication is Often Better:   When the topic at hand requires an actual conversation, synchronous communication is better than asynchronous communication.  So when a convo is required, uses in-person talking, a voice phone call, Skype, Slack, or even text.
  5. Don’t Use Email For Time-Sensitive Messages: If you define “urgent” as “important plus imminent,” then sending an urgent message via email makes no sense. Email is not imminent because it’s asynchronous.       Urgent communications should only be sent using a synchronous communication method – talking live, a voice phone call, Slack (but only if the person responds right away!!) or text (again, only if there’s an immediate response!!)  If it’s urgent, it probably needs a phone call!
  6. When TO Use Slack: Before Slack, I found that plain old-fashioned IM worked very well, particularly in a distributed workforce environment. It was also good for today’s “open plan” offices to reduce chatter.  Lucky for us all, Slack is a very-much-improved technology than IM and is great when we need instant, synchronous communication.
  7. When NOT to use Slack:  Slack works best if the person you are communicating with is also on Slack right now! The messages are fleeting, even if though they are stored. Slack should be used only when you need / want to engage in a live, synchronous conversation with the person. You should assume that all people who are not on your Slack system right now will not see the conversation; so don’t put “permanent” communications in Slack; put those in email.  People should look at all of their emails eventually — I read every one of my 200+ emails by the end of the day/night.  But people cannot be expected to go back and look at an old Slack conversation that happened when they were not at their device (in a meeting, etc.)
  8. The Secret Communication Tool – Text: I get over 200 emails every single day; many of those folks need to wait before I can respond. I get less than a half dozen texts a day; those people get my immediate attention.
  9. Change Mediums Carefully. Unless you are requested to do otherwise, you should usuall6 respond via the medium the conversation started in. If the conversation starts with, say, a text, then continue the conversation with a text, not email. Ditto if the conversation starts with a phone call (that’s gone to voice mail) — respond by calling the person back on the phone (though a text might work just fine, as long as the person responds quickly.)  If you change mediums what you are really saying is, “I don’t want to engage in this conversation with you – I just want to tell you what I think and end it there.” Note that sometimes an email can turn into a Slack, but only if you are looking to have a conversation.  For example, you might initate a Slack conversation to set up meeting details.
  10. If You Send a URL: If you send a URL to someone, type a short message (how about 140 characters or less?) stating why you are sending the URL. “This article about rebranding is, I think, exactly what we need to do.”       Or “This article about rebranding mostly does not apply to us; but I think the point in the fifth paragraph is spot on for us.” Or “Great article on rebranding which supports what I’ve said before — we missed our opportunity to rebrand when we were smaller.”
  11. Ditto When Forwarding Emails or Sending Attachments or Sharing Documents:  If you decide to forward an email — or send an attachment, or a link to a document — do two things:  1.  Summarize the forwarded email (or the attachment / document) and, 2. Tell the recipient why you are forwarding / sending. Do you want them to take an action? Or is it just an, “FYI” that can be ignored?
  12. “To” vs. “CC” on Action Items:       If you have an action item for someone in the body of your email, then that person’s name should always be in the TO field; none of the people in the CC field should have an action item.
  13. Highlight Action Items: Particularly when an email contains multiple action items for multiple people, format the action items so the recipient clearly understands what is expected of them. Put the name of the person on each action item. Put a two to three word summary of the action item at the start of the sentence. And bold both of the name and the summary.
  14. TO: All Employees:       Think carefully before using an “All Employees” alias. Stop and ask yourself, “Does this email really need to go to everyone (in the company or group or team); or can some people be dropped from the list?” Don’t be lazy; take the time to send the email to ONLY those who need to get it. Also, just because the original email was sent to everyone, usually the reply should not be sent to everyone.
  15. Reply-All: Think carefully before hitting “Reply All.”       Stop and think about each and every name on the list and decide who can be dropped (or who you should add.) (Exception: If the original email asked, “Is the building on fire?” then the response should probably be a “Reply All.”)
  16. “To” vs. “CC” on any Reply-All: When you do do a “reply all,” (in addition to removing — and possibly adding — names) look carefully at the “to” and ‘’cc” fields. Your email system possibly placed people into incorrect fields.       This is often the case if you are responding not to the original email, but rather to the second or third version of the email; in those cases, the person who started the email chain has often been relegated to a cc, which is not likely what you intended.
  17. Change the Subject: Many of us have email software that takes emails that have the same subject and puts them into a “conversation”.  Given this, we want responders to not change the subject field.  That said, when the actual subject of the email has in fact changed then, in those cases, you should change the subject field.
  18. Descriptive & Inclusive Subject – Plus “EOM”: Like it or not, many people will make their “Do I read this email now?” decision based on the subject field. Make sure it is descriptive. And make sure it includes all the subjects covered in the email; if your email covers two subjects but your subject line only covers one, that’s not smart. So break the habit that lots of execs have of adding a second, unrelated subject at the end of an email. (“Oh, by the way, tell everyone that this week’s payroll will be two days late.”) Also, if your entire message is in the subject field — “Due to the storm, we’re closing the office at 3 PM” – then put “EOM” (End of Message) in the subject field. No need to even open it!
  19. Let It Die / NRR: Some of us feel that we can never have an email trail end in our inbox; we insist on having the last word.       Give it up. Often NRR applies. (No Response Required.) Don’t insist on one last response as it’s just creating an email for someone else.
  20. Tip For When Your In-Box Is Overloaded: If you’ve been away for a few hours or days and your inbox is overloaded, try this tip: Sort the unread emails in your inbox by sender name. You’ll find you can more-quickly plow through dozens of emails in a shorter time.  (Unfortuantly, this tip only works for people who do not use their inbox for storing all their emails.)
  21. Advice Just For The Boss:       Don’t jump into discussions late.       If time has passed and the issue is on the way to being resolved, don’t chime in with your opinion; you’re just going to divert people who have been working on solving the problem in your absence.  If you are late to the party, behave differently than if the original email were only a few minutes old. Ask one person only, “This email is five hours old. Has the problem been handled? Do I need to chime in?”
  22. More Advice Just For The Boss: Sitting down at night and “cleaning up your email” by sending a ton of emails to others on the team is not getting work done; rather it’s dumping work on others. You are just hindering those people from achieving their goals and objectives.       It’s discouraging to your team members who work a long day, handle all their email before they head home, only to come in in the morning to a pile of late-night stuff from the boss.

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