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When Email Hits a Dead End

Posted May 24, 2012, by Roy Speed

Time to get serious about email

Ever write an email asking a colleague to do something, and then... nothing; no response.

What explains such a thing?

Is your colleague upset with you, perhaps for reasons unrelated to your email? -- Or maybe it's a question of status: your colleague is a senior vice president; you're in the mailroom.

But suppose the situation is normal: your colleague is a peer; there are no special circumstances that would explain her lack of response. How do we account for this all-too-common occurrence?

A bit of perspective

Let's turn to a recent study of corporate email across several organizations. It contained this finding:

Fewer than half of emails that required an action on the part
of the recipient actually stated what that action was.

This finding, as staggering as it is, would not come as a surprise to employees who've worked in a large organization for any period of time; they're clobbered with such emails every day. And yet we all know perfectly well that when making a request, you have to be clear about what you seek.

Something else is afoot.

A type of blindness
Underlying the finding in the abovementioned study is something that has proven a perennial challenge for people in business: seeing clearly our own writing. When looking at our own drafts and getting ready to click SEND, we are all susceptible to a sort of blindness.

Consider this related phenomenon: professional proofreaders have long noted that when checking a document, we often fail to see that a word is missing; the omission doesn't get noticed until someone entirely new to the document points it out.

What accounts for this phenomenon is sometimes called "mental compensation": our brains know what the sentence is supposed to say and, in an attempt to be helpful, supply the missing word. Our brains, in other words, present us with a corrected image, one that compensates for whatever deficiencies are in the writing.

In a similar way, when writing to request action of a colleague, we fail to notice that what we seek is not at all obvious; we may even fail to mention what we seek. After all, we know what we're asking for, so every time we glance at our draft message, it all seems clear enough.

The reader
When writing email, there is simply no substitute for seeing your reader. It helps to actually picture her: Where is she? -- at her desk? -- in a meeting? -- perhaps out of the office and viewing email only on her BlackBerry or iPhone...

What's important here is investing the mental effort to summon her presence, include her in your writing process. Doing so has the power to alter dramatically everything about the email:

  • how you craft the "Subject:" line;
  • how you word your opening lines;
  • how you state what you're seeking.

Most important, we must factor into our email-writing the mental state of our readers. In most cases, they're busy -- in a state of data overload; way over-scheduled; hardly a moment to think, or breathe. Implications: When requesting action of such a person, we must make what we seek obvious, simple, plain.

Key idea: With business email, there's no such thing as being too obvious.



Our Email Writing blog is about getting your head screwed on straight about what it means to write effectively. It's also about getting more mileage out of email — using our time efficiently.

For issues related to email performance across organizations and business units, please see our blog on Email Leadership.



I'm eager to hear about your challenges with workplace email. I won't reveal anything shared in confidence without your express permission. Email me about any of the following topics:

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