Email advice from Winston Churchill
Author: Nick Hawcroft | July 1, 2019
Wait, what? But it’s true. Many historical figures can give us tips on improving our email communication. Even though email is a relatively new invention, the principles that guide it are as old as the hills.
Here are some suggestions on effective email writing from famous people from the past (and present).
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”
“Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Both the Indian activist and the former US President got that one right – in business, relationships are everything.
If we look at ‘leadership’ as getting things done and moving business forward, then make sure you’re relational in everything you write. It works much better than using ‘muscle’. After all, business cannot exist without relationships. Maybe you can get short-term results by being tough and abrasive, but in the long run, you’ll find it a struggle.
One of the best things you can do is lean your email towards the recipient – avoid the temptation of writing about what you need or what you’re doing, and instead focus on what’s in it for them. Why should they care about your email? What’s motivating them to respond and take action? Put yourself in your recipient’s shoes and ask yourself how you’d feel if you got this email – do you feel engaged in the communication, or is it just one-way traffic of ‘Me, me, me’?
For example, instead of ‘I need you to upload this document’, try ‘Could you please upload this document’. Instead of ‘I spent hours trying to find the report about 2018 Finance and when I did, it was so badly written I had to spend another 2 hours writing it’, just say “Here is the 2018 Finance Report”.
Using this so-called “You Perspective” helps you focus on the goal of your message as well as building the relationship with the recipient by showing them you care about what’s important to them.
“If you get pompous, you lose everything.”
Maybe the shorter half of Simon & Garfunkel was talking about something else when he came out with this, but his opinion makes a lot of sense in the world of email.
Pomposity, or over-formality, is a barrier to communication. Going back to relationships, formal register in emails creates a distance between you and the recipient – and to build the relationship, you need to close that distance.
With other forms of communication, you get clues about how the sender is feeling: body language, tone of voice, and so on. With email, of course, all you have are the words. So using the right choice of words will help you build that all-important connection with your recipient.
Another danger with formality is that it can be interpreted as a power distance – you’re putting yourself above the recipient in some imagined hierarchy. Take a look at the following 2 ways to write the same thing:
Please kindly be informed that the file is available from the provided link.
This is to let you know you can access the file by clicking here.
In the second example, any perceived power distance has vanished. It’s just one regular guy talking to another, rather than someone in a position of authority talking down to the recipient.
A side-effect of formal language is, because the constructions are so complex, you can mask the goal of your message, leading to trouble achieving your result.
“Doubt can only be removed by action.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When doubt creeps into an email, both relationships and results can suffer.
Imagine asking a colleague when they can finish a report that you need for an important presentation to the board of directors. They say: “I hope I can finish it by Friday.”
Well, that’s just great, isn’t it? They ‘hope’… It’s nice that they’re full of hope, but how does that help you? Are you going to get the report or not? Who knows?
From the writer’s perspective, they’d better brace themselves for incoming emails: why could the report be delayed? Can they fix the problem so the report arrives on time? What do they plan to do if the worst happens?
Much better to get rid of that doubt and give your recipient clear expectations: “The report is scheduled to be ready by Friday; you’ll get an update on my progress by 13:00 Wednesday.” This would lead to lower blood pressure for everyone involved (and less spam for you).
Sometimes, you’ll need to step out of the email communication you’re in to be able to remove the doubt.
Let’s say someone asks you where to find the 2018 Personnel Report, and you reply: “Maybe it’s in the ABC folder.” If it isn’t there, you’re just going to get spammed with more email. A way of removing the doubt is to say: “Please check the ABC folder and get back to me if you’re still having trouble.” But of course, the risk of spam is still there.
The best solution is to nail it down yourself – call a colleague or go on the hunt for the report yourself. Then you can reply with “Here’s a link to the 2018 Personnel Report” and you know the job’s done.
Often, the secret to removing doubt is a 2-stage process: first, imagine the worst-case scenario for your recipient, and then come up with an action point for them based on that scenario.
For example, instead of “I trust you don’t have any more questions”, think of the 2-stage process. Worst-case scenario? They have more questions. Action point? “Let me know if you have any more questions.” Using the second option builds your reputation by focusing on the result. Plus, you’ll be strengthening the relationship by showing your recipient that you’re keeping the connection alive.
“The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Positivity works wonders in emails. People care more about what has happened, or what will happen, than what hasn’t or won’t. Focus on solutions rather than problems.
Positive language also has the advantage of making your message clearer. Compare “You won’t be able to open an account if you don’t register on the portal” with “You can open an account once you register on the portal”. Or, more dramatically, “Just because you don’t have Level 9 clearance doesn’t mean you can’t access the system”. This is one heck of a sentence to get through without developing a headache.
Instead, focus on the positive: “You can still access the system with Level 8 clearance”.
And from a psychological perspective, people tend to remember verbs more than negation. Tell someone “You won’t receive the file before Tuesday”, and chances are the message they come away with is “You will receive the file before Tuesday”. Get rid of the confusing negation by committing to a positive deadline: “You will get the file by 14:00 Tuesday”.
Keeping your mind on the positives also forces you to take responsibility for your actions and your words. One of the things people like to do is “wash their hands of responsibility.” However, it is important for business, and for your relationships, that you make clear commitments and that you stick to them.
“Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” [“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”]
Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and philosopher
“Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.”
Being concise is one of the most relational and results-oriented tactics you can use when writing an email. It shows you’ve taken the time to make sure your recipient gets only the info they need to handle your request.
Pascal was right – usually we write way more than we need to when we’re pushed for time. This is why it’s so important to take a moment to proofread and trim your email if necessary. Your recipient will thank you for it and the relationship will strengthen. People sometimes think that brief emails are “rude”; that you need to use extended, flowery prose to cushion the effect of your email. The reverse is true for most cultures – one of your recipients’ most valuable resources is time. Most employees would much rather read a concise, conversational email that gets right to the point than labour through what seems like the complete works of Shakespeare.
A good tip for trimming your email is to re-read it and ask yourself “If I got rid of this part, would I still maintain the relationship and drive towards a result?” If the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’, then bin that part. The excess noise in your email will be reduced and you’ll find yourself getting much more done. And your recipient won’t be tempted to wait for the DVD version of your email to come out….