Category Archives: Email

The Virtual PM: 7 Best Practices for Effective Communication

I recently wrote a whitepaper entitled “The Virtual Project Manager: Seven Best Practices for Effective Communication,” which was published by the Project Management Institute (PMI). You can download it by clicking on the link, but for those of you who don’t want to read through the 4-page article, I included a summary slide deck that highlights its main takeaways.

Let me know what you think about it in the comments section below!

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The 3 Types of Responses to Questions: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nearly every single response to every single question I’ve ever asked someone in a meeting, phone call or email can be classified under one of three categories: one’s good, the other’s bad, and the third’s ugly. The good is when someone answers the question first, and then gives additional information afterwards. The bad is when they do it the other way around. The ugly is when they never answer the question.

Here’s a visual to explain the difference.


Here’s an explanation of why you need to always go with the good.

THE UGLY: If you’re a CEO or a politician answering the media, then I understand why you need to go with the ugly. Otherwise, for the love of God, answer the question.

THE BAD: While this is much better than the ugly, the frustrating thing about the bad is that makes the listener work hard to figure out what the answer is. Even if you get to the answer at the end, the fact that you’ve started out your discussion with your grandfather’s history, and then talked about your mom’s meatloaf recipe,  leads to ambiguity and uncertainty on the listener’s side – particularly in a virtual setting. As a manager in a company or a business owner, that could be detrimental to a team.

THE GOOD: In most situations, starting out with a direct and straightforward answer is the best way to go. The most effective type of answer is one which summarizes the point succinctly first, and then gives any other supporting or background information afterwards. Technically, there are only four types of responses to a question, so to save everyone time and frustration, make sure you start your answer with one of the following options:

  1. The Answer ( “Cindy Mitchell is the person you need to talk to…”)
  2. Yes ( “Yes, I do need that report tomorrow…”)
  3. No ( “No, I did not understand what you just said…”)
  4. Maybe/ I don’t know/ I’m not sure (“I don’t know who is responsible for that task…”)

As a side tip, if you have to answer with #4, it’s always a good idea to continue your sentence with “…but what I do know is…” For example, if someone asks about the fastest directions to get to downtown Boston from Brookline, a good answer would be: “I’m not sure what the fastest way is, but what I do know is that if you catch a bus to the Cleveland Circle Station, you’ll be there in 45 minutes.

Know of any other frustrating responses to questions? Let me know in the comments section below!

5 Annoying Replies That Don’t Require “Reply All”

One pet peeve that I share with a lot of people I know is the use of “Reply All” in email – especially when every recipient on the mailing list doesn’t need to be included in the response.

It’s very frustrating and such a waste of time having to click through useless back and forth email chatter when the topic doesn’t apply to me. The problem is that because I’m copied on the email chain, I falsely assume that I have to read all the messages and therefore I cannot just ignore them. In my previous job, this caused such a major productivity issue that the company literally removed the “Reply All” button and hid it so that employees think twice about using the feature.

If you’re the person replying back, there is only one simple, obvious rule that you need to follow: Don’t use “reply all” if only the original sender needs to read your message.

Of course, there are many situations where it makes sense to respond back to everyone on the list, such as for brainstorming ideas or for updating working documents. However, most cases don’t require that everyone read what you have to say, especially if it’s one of the following 5 annoying replies that frequently come up:

Have you experienced any other annoying reply all’s? Let me know in the comments section below!

Japanese Perfection and Why You Need to be Specific in Your Requests

I’m reading a book called “Reframing Organizations” by Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal (Jossey-Bass, 2008) for an Organizational Behavior course I’m taking and I came across a hilarious section which refers to an encounter between two companies in the 1970s or 1980s. The first is an American company which needed ball bearings and the second is a Japanese plant that made them.

Here’s what apparently happened:

Although the book’s main point was more about the difference in company standards between both countries, I couldn’t help but map this back to miscommunication in virtual teams.

This nearly always happens. One party sends a request without being descriptive enough, and the other party acts on it without following up.

Here are a couple of lessons learned for both companies that we can all learn from:

American Company: Be explicit with your orders. Elaborating on the request by saying something like “We’d like all those ball bearings to be perfectly shaped, but we’ll be ok if you send us up to 20 defective ones” might have reduced the time to make them.

Japanese Plant: If you’re not too sure about the order, ask before you start working on it. You wasted time making an additional 20 defective ball bearings! Oh, and ease up on the perfectionism, will you?

How I saved 15 minutes a week from emails in 2 simple steps

Every email I’ve written has started and ended with something similar to the following:

So I looked at the facts:

  • I write around 20 to 30 emails a day
  • I type at a rate of 50 words per minute
  • The greeting (“Hey John”) and signature (“Regards, Hassan”) cost me around 5 seconds per email
  • That’s a waste of around 15 minutes each week

So here’s how I saved that time in two simple steps:

  1. Dropped the Greeting: For the greeting, I emailed those I regularly correspond with that I’m going to drop the “Hey/ Dear/ Hi You” part. It was just a waste of time typing “Dear Jane” if you were the only two communicating anyway. Some might think that’s offensive, but not if you tell them you’re going to do it ahead of time. A simple note saying “Hey – given that we email each other regularly, I thought we could both save some time dropping the greeting formalities from our future emails – just like we do through SMS” helps put things in perspective. You can also just link them to this post to save yourself the trouble of explaining 🙂
  2. Automated the Signature: For the signature, I automated it so I don’t have to retype it in every email. Nearly all email clients have the signature feature – here’s how to add it in Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, or Outlook. This isn’t really an innovation as most people already use signatures, but most add only their name. They still waste time retyping “Regards,” “Best,” “Sincerely,” “Take Care,” or “Cheers,” in every message, so adding that courtesy line to your signature makes sense. Extra tip: You can also add an empty line space before your signature to avoid hitting the “Enter” button after every message.

There are a couple of caveats to dropping the greeting. First, do it only if you’re emailing someone one-on-one. If you’re emailing multiple people, even if they’re on CC, it could get confusing as to who you’re directing the message to. Second, this applies to individuals you email regularly and have already established a relationship with. I wouldn’t drop the greeting when emailing a new business client or someone you infrequently correspond with.

Three Tips to Make People Reply Back to Your Email

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks to have colleagues and friends get back to me through email when I really need them to. Most individuals get a ton of email every day, so to stand out from the crowd you need to think marketing. Here are 3 quick tips you can apply to your subject lines:

  • Write their name: People are primed to recognize their name when they skim over it in a bunch of junk, so start out the subject of the email with their first name. Using their nickname earns you higher points.
  • Summarize the email’s topic: Don’t just type a generic summary (“CV Attached”). If your objective is to get an answer, then ask a question (“Think this attached CV is a good candidate?”).
  • Write down a deadline: This creates a sense of urgency, and people hate to miss deadlines (even if they’re fake 😉 ).

Here are a couple of good/bad subject line examples:

Bad Example: Financial Update PowerPoint Deck
Good Example: Dave – need your input on this financial deck by tomorrow @ 6:00pm

Bad Example: Lunch
Good Example: Jen – you available this Thu for lunch? Let me know by COB

 

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks to have colleagues and friends get back to me through email when I really need them to. Here are 3 quick tips you can apply to your subject lines to make someone reply back to your messages.

 

  1. Write their name: People are primed to recognize their name when they skim over it in a bunch of junk, so start out the subject of the email with their first name. Using their nickname earns you higher points.
  2. Summarize the email’s topic: Don’t use a generic summary. If you have a question, ask it. If you need a review, mention it.
  3. Write down a deadline: This creates a sense of urgency, and people hate to miss deadlines (even if it’s fake 😉 )

 

Here are a couple of examples:

 

Bad Example: Q4 Financial Update PPT

Good Example: Dave – need your input on this financial deck by tomorrow @ 6:00pm

 

Bad Example: Lunch

Good Example: Jen – you available this Thu for lunch? Let me know by COB.