How to Write Better Emails

Elon Musk, during a recent interview, described corporations as cybernetic collectives of people and machines. Corporations vary in size and market cap. Why are some corporations more effective than others? I think Communication is a huge part of it.

For example, Amazon.com’s unique communication style. Meetings begin with carefully prepared 6 page memos, read silently by attendees before beginning discussion.

How do most people in corporations communicate? In many cases, they communicate by sending lots of email messages. So, writing more effective emails makes you more effective and helps the rest of the team, too. Your job as a writer of emails is to save the reader’s time.

Five practical tips for being an effective emailer:

  1. Name your target
  2. Just get out with it
  3. Write shorter emails
  4. Make a phone call
  5. Avoid detective games

1. Name your target

When you’re making a request, you must have a person or person(s) in mind who can fulfill your request. Don’t be shy, name them. These people are your target.

Try not to make requests to “somebody” or “anybody” because you will end up with a response from “nobody”. Highlight or tag (@name) the name of your target to grab their attention.

2. Just get out with it

Just get out with it. State your request first and provide detailed context later. People are lazy readers, they can read the first sentence and decide whether to continue reading.

It feels unnatural to skip the build up, but do it anyway. The reader can dig into the meat if they want. Take it to the next level by making the request very succinct.

3. Write shorter emails

Write shorter emails. Try to get it done in 3 sentences or less. Most people are lazy readers, they’re not going to carefully read your wall of text. So, you’re wasting keystrokes typing all of it.

4. Make a phone call

When there is a lot of back and forth, stop using email and make a phone call. Exchanging paragraphs of text back and forth may be a signal a 10 minute phone or in-person conversation would be more effective.

5. Avoid Detective Games

If you’re referencing a document or web site or anything, hyperlink directly to what you’re talking about. Or include a screenshot/image. Better yet, draw a red box around the part of the image you’re talking about.

Don’t make me (the reader), play a game of figuring out what you’re referencing. Save me as many clicks as possible by giving me a hyperlink. Doing this makes it easier for me to understand and reply. We both get better results.

What I learned this week about productivity from Tesla, Amazon memos

Last week’s leaked Tesla memo is fascinating, and so is the annual Amazon.com letter to shareholders. The memos were seemingly penned by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, which gives us a rare view of how they lead their world-changing companies. Here I dive into why I love these memos.

#productivity #Tesla #Amazon #memo #meetings

Last week, while announcing plans to add shifts to reach 24 hour production, Elon dropped a few productivity tips. Read a copy of the whole memo here.

Excerpt:

Btw, here are a few productivity recommendations:

– Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.

– Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.

Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time. (Emphasis mine)

– Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.

– Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the “chain of command”. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.

– A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.

– In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a “company rule” is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.

Why I love this:

  • I think I have too many meetings
  • Sometimes I wish people would get up and leave meeting I have organized, because I mistakenly invited them. They have to stop what they’re doing to come to the meeting. Wasting more of their time adds insult to injury. They won’t leave because they think it’s rude.
  • I think some people go to every meeting they are invited to without questioning the value or the trade offs.
  • Sometimes I wish meetings were a lot smaller. I try to add up the salary of everyone in the room to estimate the cost and ROI of the meeting.
  • “Chain of command” sounds really antiquated. Of course this kind of red tape gets in the way of getting things done. As a manager I try to get out of the way as much as possible, let engineers talk to engineers. Very rarely have I heard anyone complain about chain of command.
  • Acronyms get really confusing. People who don’t know what they mean pretend like they do so they can avoid looking bad. I hate jargon.
  • Common sense is surprisingly not very common. Jeff Bezos, in last year’s letter, talks about process as proxies. Following rules reminds me of that. If you focus on following all the rules and nothing else, you are dead. You lose touch of what is actually important: the end product and customer; getting things done.

This year’s annual Amazon.com letter to shareholders touches on many topics including: deliberate practice, meetings, writing.

Here’s my favorite excerpt:

Perfect Handstands

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.

It’s called work for a reason! Achieving high standards requires putting in the work. You have to delay gratification to achieve big goals.

How Amazon does meetings:

Six-Page Narratives

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

[…]

(As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)

This is why I love this section:

  • I think careful preparation for meetings also reduces the number of meetings.
  • And it eliminates agenda-less meetings. The memo is the agenda.
  • Preparing a written memo for every meeting allows the best ideas to emerge.
  • The way Amazon has implemented this, carefully thought out ideas can prevail over the loudest ideas.
  • A well-written memo can say A LOT with few words. Maybe even more effective than speaking in some cases.

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Do smart phones make stupid humans?

I like to observe how people act and think about why. Smart phones have become pervasive enough to change human behavior. What are the consequences?


Do smart phones make stupid humans?

Have you ever wondered if smart phones make us stupid? Now we have an answer and we know how stupid they make us. “Even if you’re not using it, just having your smartphone on your desk reduces your working memory capacity by 10% and fluid intelligence by 5%.” Adam Grant shared this study via this LinkedIn post.

The solution is simple: keep it in your pants, out of sight. Leave your phone in another room.


If a smart phone sabotages it’ owner, what do they do to everyone else in the room?

Simon Sinek has something interested to say about this topic. Placing your smartphone on the table at a meeting sends a signal to everyone in the room “you’re just not that important to me.” When the phone is face up, every notification lights up the screen and draws attention. When it’s face down, notification vibrations trigger nearby attendees to check their devices.


Does social media get in the way of social bonding?

You might feel sad when you see a family at dinner staring at jeejahs and not engaged in conversation. Consider an alternate point of view from Gary Vaynerchuck: smartphones didn’t create this problem. The old way to endure failure-to-connect meant drowning in awkward silence. The option to stick the nose in social media means those silences suck a little less.


How can attention spans be lengthened?

There was a time when the hat rack was a symbol of transition from public to private space. When entering the private space, one was expected to hang up their hat. Now, imagine docking smartphones in the charging rack upon entering a pricate space.  This is a great way to remove a huge source of distraction from the meeting and keep everyone engaged.


I think we are all still learning ‘proper’ smartphone etiquette, as we must do for inventions that change the way we live and work. Slowly people settle on unspoken rules of when and where putting it on the table is appropriate or inappropriate.


Thank you for reading!

Together we build a world free of fear.  What would you do if you were not afraid?