Making your communications mean more

As most people receive more emails, phone calls and other interruptions in a day than they can act upon, it pays to think carefully before contacting them. To get your communications with colleagues noticed and actioned, ask yourself the following questions before you take up their time.

Who should I send this to?

Firstly, determine who needs to see your communication. Decide if:

  • You’re contacting the right person (remember that only people in the "to" line expect to have actions);
  • You’re copying the right people in;
  • You’re copying too many people (very few people have time to "just know for interest" so there must be a clear reason in your mind - preferably also in the note - as to why they need to read this note);
  • It’s appropriate to bcc people in.

If you really want to include someone without others knowing, forwarding a copy of the email separately is better than using the bcc function. Some systems treat bcc emails as junk, so they may not be delivered and if a bcc recipient replies to all, they’ll be visible to everyone. Bcc emails are also discoverable, so they’re not as private as you may think. They can also make people instinctively suspicious of the sender's motives in sending a "covert" message.

Why should they know about this?

Your response to this question could lead you to change the timing or the mode of your communication. If you can’t define a clear reason, don’t make the contact. Reasons for telling them may be because:

  • They asked, and you’re responding with the information they requested;
  • You have something new, useful and important to share. If so, tell them why they need to know now;
  • You want their advice. However are they the best person to ask? Might they perceive it as back covering, showing off or dropping someone else in it?
  • You’re protecting yourself. Could this be counterproductive?
  • You need to get something off your desk. Is this the best time and way to do this? Could it irritate the recipient?
  • You’re demonstrating your value. Is this the best way to build your brand or will it annoy people, get lost in all the other emails or be seen as showing off? Or
  • You need them to do something.

What do they want to know?

Keep it simple for your recipient by:

  • Focusing on what they need to know, not what you want to say;
  • Being succinct; 
  • Being explicit about what they need to read. Do not ask them to read long email trails and pick out the relevant information for themselves.

How would they like to be told?

Sometimes a short meeting or phone call followed up with written materials is the best way to convey detailed information or ideas. In this scenario:

  • Present your information in the recipient’s preferred style, such as facts and figures, diagrams, an overview or the effect on people and so on;
  • When following up by emailing, write a heading that tells them:
    • If it’s urgent;
    • What it’s about;
    • What you expect from them; and
    • Timescales for any action.

What do you want them to do with your information?

Set out clearly what you’d like to happen as a result of your communication. You can do this by:

  • Making actions SMART: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, Time-bound.
  • Putting actions, those responsible and timings in bold or a different colour (but not red or in CAPITALS as that’s shorthand for shouting).

Conclusion

Respect your recipient by thinking carefully before taking up their time with your communications. If you adopt the process set out here, it will soon become second nature and help you become a fast, effective and productive communicator.

To read the next article titled 'Working in-house - how different is it from private practice?' click here.


Please see the commentary from Anthony Inglese below.

This is an excellent article.  It is well set out and makes its points in a highly readable fashion.  The opening and closing paragraphs have impact.

As to the substance, the note is sound and practical, providing as it does a good checklist of things to do – and not do – if one wants to be an effective communicator.

Is there anything missed? Although it would be wrong to be over-dogmatic about these things, because cultures differ between organisations and skills differ between people, good starting points for how best to communicate legal advice to colleagues are:-

(a) To see all communications as part of building and sustaining a productive relationship, and

(b) To make one’s impact in one’s first sentence rather than leaving the golden nugget to the end, by which time one may have lost the full attention of one’s audience.

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