On Communications: Strategies and Tactics for 2017

Welcome to 2017! As a child of the 20th century it is hard to believe we are here. The cars are not flying and most of the sidewalks don’t move, yet it really is objectively a great time to be alive:

Sometimes easy to forget, eh?

However, in this seemingly futuristic age of 2017, the ability to communicate, something we can with ease via multiple channels, is lacking. On that front, I put together a series of suggestions that have helped me (primarily with email) communicate better both personally and professionally.

Many of the following tips are ones I’ve learned from others, (with Bob Pozen being my new favorite) and others are tricks I have discovered on my own. All are independent of any particular email tool or software, although I will close with thoughts on a few favorite software solutions. As a lifelong learner, I welcome any new thought, method and tool that anyone can offer as one thing is certain: in life and in business, most failures come down to a lack of ability to communicate and follow through.

So here goes:

  1. Choose not to be offended — This is probably the most important thing I have ever learned in modern communications and certainly one of the toughest things to actually do. Email sucks as a communications medium. About 95% of the time no slight is intended. As Ben Horiwitz says, “Nobody Cares” — and with email that means while you are likely trying to communicate well, others are busy, tired, and just trying to get a thought written down to get something done. Try to find the real meaning and/or pick up the phone if you are upset with the content before you reply.
  • Corollary: Tell people you are trying not to offend them — Preface a difficult email with something like “Email is a terrible medium for this and no offense is intended.” It goes a long way.
  • Corollary to the corollary: Don’t get offended when you are called out for sometimes forgetting all of the above (he says from personal experience!).

2) Stop telling everyone to pick up the phone and/or meet in person — It is 2017 and we live in a remote world. Yes, meet in person when you can (see note on meetings below). Use video calls when you can. Use IM when you can. Write handwritten notes when you can. However, you have to learn how to write a good email. Be conversational yet direct at the same time. Practice. Email is not going away anytime soon.

3) Email: Change subject lines — This is so simple and so effective. Most people you meet will send you a generic email “FW: Meeting Request.” Time is valuable so make the subject line tell an effective story about why the recipient should open it. (ie “Meeting Request: Jay and Acme Inc.”). Above all, when the subject of an email changes as it bounces around, change the subject line to reflect the current content. In almost all email programs this starts a new thread. Think of it this way, every time you change a subject line a digital angel gets its wings … and you’ve made other people’s lives easier. Just do it.

4) Email: Choose recipients wisely — No one likes a blast email where 10+ people are included just because you think they might be interested. See “Nobody Cares” above and respect their inbox. You know the few people you need to communicate with and if the email does not work, then emailing a bunch of other people won’t help either. Some corollaries to this:

  • Rarely cc — Stop covering your ass. No one has time for this.
  • Rarely reply-to-all — Reply to the people who actually need your response. And no one-word responses. “Thanks.” to 20 people generally will make 19 of them mad. And, just an FYI, one word responses with a period at the end comes across as rude. That goes for an email or a text.

5) Email: Choose priorities wisely — 95% of all red-exclamation point urgent emails (primarily a Microsoft Outlook feature) I receive are not actually urgent. The constant use of urgent emails with the modern equivalent of crying wolf. Save it for when you need it.

  • Corollary: If you use Microsoft Outlook there is an underused but wonderful “Low Priority” selection. Low priority is awesome for sending general info or forwarding articles for optional reading. Use it.

6) Email: Choose when to send wisely — As a leader, I have abused this more than any other item. It applies to everyone, but leaders often fail to realize their questions are almost always interpreted as commands. If you send after hours emails on weekends, you are telling team members that you really do not value their time away from work. Early in my career one of my direct reports pulled me aside and gave me some tough feedback — “Jay, I give up. I cannot keep up with your emails at 2:00 a.m. You win. You can outwork us all. Please let me get some sleep.” Some practical advice:

  • Don’t send emails late at night. You are making phones buzz and, above all, really are just bragging you work hard. Every email program has a “delay delivery” feature. If you really are up late, write all of the emails and have them show up early in the morning. (For more on delay delivery, see this article for Outlook and this one for Gmail.)
  • Don’t send emails or IM on weekends or holidays — Just stop it, really. Of course, if there is an emergency project then all bets are off. Usually there isn’t. Write out your thoughts if you choose to work (as an entrepreneur I get it — trust me). Just save up all of your wisdom for when people are in work mode and will actually hear it.

7) OHIO (Only Handle It Once) — Take action on the email when you first read it, or schedule it for future review (personally, I forward my emails to Asana as task to accomplish. More on Asana further down.). But, do not leave the email sitting there! This is a principle of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and is wonderfully distilled in Bob Pozen’s Extreme Productivity. Both books are highly recommended. Try to get your inbox to zero once a month if daily is too much to start. You will stay ahead of the game if you do.

  • Corollary: Create just an “Archive” folder and viscously move emails here if not relevant. All email tools now have wonderful search functions. There is no need for overly complicated sub-folders to find things.

8) Meetings: Always have an agenda — If you can, immediately go purchase the notebook “Productive Meetings: Notes and Actions.” It provides the single best format for a smooth running meeting that I have ever come across. There is too much to convey here, but the introductory pages contain a lot of compact wisdom from Bob Pozen. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

  • Send agenda’s ahead of time for all meetings if you can, but ALWAYS for important ones.
  • For maximum effectiveness, don’t embed the agenda in a calendar invite. Send as a separate email with “Agenda” clearly labeled in the subject line.
  • Decline meetings with no agenda — you can do it politely, but your time is almost certainly being wasted. “If possible, can we reschedule this meeting so that everyone can prepare appropriately based on an agenda?”
  • Record the actions somewhere that will remind all participants of accountability. Asana is great for this. More about Asana at the end of this post.

9) Meetings: Put down your damn phone and close your damn computer — This is my personal failing and correcting is my number one resolution for 2017. What finally convinced me to take personal action is the video below. It is 15 minutes long and worth going all the way to the end (you will learn something new about Millennials too — namely that we old people are part of the problem). If this doesn’t convince everyone to focus during meetings and to “Model the Way” then I don’t know what will. Furthermore, meetings will likely be shorter and certainly more productive.

  • Corollary: Use video conferencing whenever you can. If the meeting is highly disbursed, video can be a curse (audio issues persist). However, almost every online meeting program has video capability (GotoMeeting, Webex, Join.me, etc.). Lead that way and turn it on. Body language does matter.

10) Life Suggestion: Have a paper daily planner and use it every day — There are people that can keep everything perfectly in their head. Actually, I have never met these people, although many insist they are part of this tribe. All the rest of us need to spend time every day organizing and prioritizing to hold ourselves and others accountable. My personal experience is that nothing completely replaces paper for this. Here are my tips:

  • I was trained on the Franklin Planner system but could never get on board when they combined with Covey. However, the principles remain strongly ingrained in me. The Bullet Journal system is my new method and it’s working wonderfully.
  • I accidentally ordered the larger size of my favorite notebook, the Black n’ Red Poly Cover and what a serendipitous mistake it ended up to be. Plenty of room for bullet journal daily/monthly planning in addition to notes. At $5.75 you cannot beat it (and a pen fits nicely in the spirals!).

11) Bonus Suggestion #1: Always add logos and properly format a document — Want your document to be read? Make it look like you actually care. Add your company/organization logo, properly format for readability, and check your spelling/grammar. Yes, the content matters the most. Spending the 5–10 minutes needed for basic readability shows you care about the reader too.

12) Bonus Suggestion #2: Write a real note every once and a while — If you don’t have any, order some personalized stationary. Pull it out once a month and write something nice on paper. Stamps still work really well!

  • Corollary: Below is most effective use of social media combined with a good, old-fashioned written note that I have ever seen. (Full disclosure — I am a huge Vanderbilt Baseball fan and would happily vote for Tim Corbin for president if allowed):

13) There are two tools I now recommend to almost every organization:

Slack: It really is the best IM solution on the planet. It was instantly adopted in our company and really has a “human” feeling about it. Pictures and animated gifs integrate nicely. Video chats are rolling out now. Furthermore, it has the feature which is the best feature of Skype and missing from so many IM programs: persistent groups chats. Out of the office for a while? Scroll back through groups and get caught up. You will be amazed how well it can improve communications.

Asana: If you need a flexible tool for organizing tasks that require accountability, then there is nothing better on the market. An underused feature is the ability to setup recurring tasks which, over time, will build a whole business checklist. Everything from important annual tax filings to remembering to clean out the refrigerator on a monthly basis. Again, as a communications tool, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  • Corollary: You will meet strong resistance rolling Asana out. The byproduct of Asana is that it is brutal about accountability. There are those that actively and passively resist an audit trail when email is just so easy to ignore (you might have noticed). However, for those who like to actually get things done, Asana will take off like wildfire. As with all company initiatives, leadership needs to “Model the Way” for it (or anything) to be effective. Tools don’t solve problems; people do.

Well, there you go. This was fun for me to write on a rainy New Year’s Eve. I would personally appreciate any your tips, feedback, support, or criticisms. Happy New Year to all!

Jay Graves (@allballbearings)