How to Email Busy People

How to Email Busy People

When you ask something of somebody, one of the cardinal rules of the “art of the ask” is to make it as convenient as possible for that person to respond to your request. This is especially true if you’re asking something of a busy person.

When you email busy people proposing a meeting, don’t give them a range of options with the intention of being considerate of their busyness.

  • Don’t be longwinded: “I’m available any time on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon except from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM when I have an appointment with my dentist. Let me know when works best for you.”
  • Don’t give them a whole bunch of options (“… any time this week”) or, worse yet, don’t ask them to leaf through their calendar and suggest a time (“I know you’re busy. Let me know when you want to meet.”)

Instead, keep your ask as brief and simple as possible. Make it easy for busy people to respond by offering few choices: “How about 9:00 AM on Tuesday?” If you know their Tuesdays or mornings tend to be busy, you may propose one alternative: “Are you available on Tuesday at 10:00 AM or on Wednesday at 3:00 PM?” If they’d like to meet with you, they’ll glance at their calendar and say “OK.” If neither of your proposed times works, they’ll suggest another time.

Idea for Impact: Avoid imposing more busy work on already busy people.

Lessons from a Social Media Disaster

30-year-old Justine Sacco made headlines in December 2013 for insensitive remarks on Twitter during her journey to visit family in South Africa.

  • Sacco tweeted about a fellow passenger on her flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, “‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’—Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
  • And then, during her layover in London, she tweeted, “Chilly—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!”
  • Subsequently, before boarding her aircraft for the final leg of her trip to Cape Town, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine Sacco published a tweet: 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!'

Sacco Should Have Known Better

Justine Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications at the digital media conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. Her career centered on managing the intent and vocabulary of internal and external communications at a large multinational company.

Sacco’s last tweet sparked an immediate furor. By the time she landed in South Africa, thousands of angry tweets responded to her remarks. Reactions ranged from “Sorry @JustineSacco, your tweet lives on forever” to “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” to “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

IAC/InterActiveCorp, her employer, tweeted, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” By the time she landed in South Africa, IAC had fired Sacco and released a statement saying:

The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.

There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.

That One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Career

Lessons from Justine Sacco's Social Media Disaster Justine Sacco later apologized for her insensitivity and stated, “Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. … For being insensitive to this crisis … and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. … This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.”

Sacco is now a communications manager for a small startup in New York. Even if she realized social media’s power in the most awful way possible and learned her lesson the hard way, the chances of her ever getting another significant job in corporate communications or public relations are remote. Presumably, it will take a long time for her to rebuild her career.

Alas, Humor is a Difficult Thing

Sacco probably isn’t racist or one who doesn’t sympathize with people with AIDS. Her tweet was simply a bad tweet.

Sacco, who deleted her Twitter account right away, had a history of tweeting sarcastic remarks and offensive little jokes. “I was so naive,” she later admitted to a Gawker columnist, claiming she never expected that her tweet would be misunderstood and misconstrued in such a way. She insisted her message was an attempt to mimic what a truly racist or ignorant person would say.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

Three Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet: The Pitfalls of Social Media

  • Companies, publish social media guidelines for employees: Social media users easily blur the lines between their personal and professional personalities by openly declaring their affiliations on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites. Consequently, when they use social media in their professional or personal capacities, they can seriously harm their employer’s reputation. Whereas policing technology use or monitoring all published content is impractical, companies must educate employees about the pitfalls of social media. For example, the U.S. Air Force has a thorough handbook to help its employees engage online (and offline) communities in a positive way.
  • Folks, be mindful of your digital footprint; watch what you write. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Many prospective employers search social networking websites and the internet for more information on job candidates. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be distorted or misinterpreted. Refrain from venting complaints, writing crude posts, portraying organizations and individuals in negative light, bad-mouthing, and posting opinions on sensitive topics. Maintain a professional tone and post insightful content that appeals to prospective employers.
  • Be cautious with humor and sarcasm. “Humor is inherently ambiguous. That’s how it works. You’re saying more than one thing, and it’s never clear exactly what the message is,” says Prof. Rod Martin, who has researched the nature of humor at the University of Western Ontario. It’s amazing how quickly a well-intentioned remark or an offhand comment, when taken the wrong way, can completely derail communication. Humor and sarcasm are complicated. No matter how funny you think you are, you’ll stand the risk that people won’t “get it.” This is especially true in written form, which lacks the helpful subtext of tone and facial movement. It can be very difficult to foresee how others may receive humor or sarcasm: as a clever comment, show of callousness, or as passive-aggression. Exercise caution when it is necessary to use humor; don’t let it get out of control.

Idea for Impact: Social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media.

Postscript: While I understand the power of social media as an efficient medium for how our world currently interacts, I must admit I don’t understand why intrusive micro-blogging on Facebook (and worse, Twitter) is interesting. Personally, I find social media a gross distraction and invasion of privacy. This is besides the fact that, frankly, nobody cares where I am or what I am doing on an hour-by-hour basis. I deliberately choose to reduce my technological footprint and connect with people in more thoughtful and meaningful ways.

No Swearing & Profanity: Mind Your Language

Do not allow swearing in the workplace

Last week, Time Magazine discussed research that suggests that using curse words can help cope with physical pain. This reminds me of a 2007 research that implies that regular swearing helps employees better express their feelings in stressful circumstances and boosts team morale.

Such research is misleading in that the findings may be perceived as approving of profanity at work. As work environments have become more laid-back over the years, swearing is more commonplace than in the past, especially in blue-collar environments and certain other workplace cultures.

Harry S. Dennis III of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan explores two bases for the tolerance of profanity in workplaces.

  • The laid-back we-are-all-in-this-together culture is almost like a fraternity environment. The use of profanity somehow communicates a symbolic unity. Employees believe that their degree of comfort with one another means it’s OK to let down their guard. It becomes a casual exchange and falsely suggests a degree of communication intimacy.
  • In the hard-driving aggressive environment, employees use profanity to communicate urgency, a need for action. Most swear words are one syllable, so they carry a bullet-like impact and light a fire under the butt of the person on the receiving end so they get the job done. It is, in fact, a terrible negative motivator.

Swearing and Profanity: Mind Your Language

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, Bob Nardelli at Home Depot, Carol Betz at Yahoo! and other executives are reported to have cussed at work. When leaders and managers swear without restraint to express annoyance at an employee, colleague, competitor, customer or circumstance, the message they convey to their organizations is that profanity is acceptable. This is akin to potty-mouthed parents hinting that it is probably OK for their watchful kids to use curse words.

Swearing and poor language is not acceptable in any professional setting. Swearing is dysfunctional to the cohesiveness of teams. Many employees find use of expletives as discourteous and quickly lose respect for those using profane language. Managers’ abusive management style can quickly intimidate employees who may hesitate to speak out.

Bad language is unacceptable behavior. Organizations should require that employees exercise common sense and avoid using colorful language. HR must deal with issues of swearing in the workplace as they occur and institute disciplinary procedures to prevent charges of workplace bullying, abuse or discrimination. Leaders and managers should curb their own language and comply privately and publicly. Employees, even high-performing ones, who repeatedly disregard such requirements and undermine the trust and morale of workplace environments must go openly.

Establish Credibility for Persuasion

Establishing Credibility with Research

‘Facts bridge the credibility gap.’

In “The McKinsey Way,” author Ethan M. Rasiel presents numerous insights to problem solving, analytical reasoning and effective communication practiced by consultants from McKinsey & Company, one of the foremost management-consulting firms.

When a typical associate joins McKinsey & Company, she “will have graduated near the top of her college class, spent two or three years working for a large company, then received her MBA from a top business school. She will be in her mid- to late-twenties. On her first engagement, she may have to present her analysis to the CEO of a Fortune 50 company, who will not give much credence to what some newly minted, 27-year-old MBA has to say — unless she has an overwhelming weight of facts to back her up. This is just as true for a junior executive presenting a proposal to his boss.

Call for Action

One of the primary facets of our work is to sell ideas — to lead and persuade an audience to appreciate our arguments or our perceptions on a certain topic or problem.

Credibility is the cornerstone of persuasive communication. Many of us mistakenly presume that credibility is an entitlement—a function of our positions or affiliations. We fail to realise that credibility is a virtue we earn and preserve over time.

Establishing Credibility with Research

The single most effective approach to establishing credibility is to demonstrate concrete foundations to our proposed thoughts — to draw on meaningful information and deduce concrete inferences in support of our positions.

  • Collect facts and data from reliable sources. Interpret data and demonstrate its relevance. Deduce and structure your arguments in a logical manner to lead people to draw conclusions you would like them to.
  • Include particulars (data, analyses, information) of your background work in an appendix to your presentation or report.
  • Consider your position from every angle and prepare to answer questions. Address counter-arguments in your communication: “Some of you may argue that… Let me assess the risk and suggest a contingency plan.”

Bear in mind that people trust a person’s thoughts so long as they trust the underlying research.

Stephen King’s Tips for Writing Better

Stephen King's Tips for Writing Better

Here are tips on writing from the celebrated science-fiction author Stephen King’s popular book “On Writing–A Memoir of the Craft.” The first third of this book is a short memoir of the prolific author and the second section, the namesake “On Writing,” is unadulterated inspiration for serious authors and anybody with an inclination to improve their written communication skills.

  • Get to the point. Do not waste your reader’s time with too much back-story, long intros or longer anecdotes about your life. Reduce the noise.
  • 'On Writing--A Memoir of the Craft' by Stephen King (ISBN 1413818720) Write a draft. Then let it rest. King recommends that you crank out a first draft and then put it in your drawer to let it rest. This enables you to get out of the mindset you had when you wrote the draft and get a more detached and clear perspective on the text.
  • Cut down your text. When you revisit your text, it is time to kill your darlings and remove all the superfluous words and sentences. Removing will de-clutter your text and often get your message through with more clarity and a bigger emotional punch.
  • Be relatable and honest. One of the keys to doing that is to have an honest voice and honest characters with both bad and good sides to them. People we can relate to with all of their faults, passions, fears, weaknesses and good moments. Another key to being honest and relatable is keeping a conversational style.
  • Write a lot. To become a better writer you probably—and not so surprisingly – need to write more.

Communication is all about the audience: it is about directing the audience to identify with your point of view and comprehend the precise message you want to convey. The writing tips in Stephen King’s “On Writing” will help you focus on your message—be it in a speech, a blog post, an essay, or an email.

To echo the ideas summarized above, read my earlier blog article about beginning with the end: the most effective start to the communication process is to begin at the end and enumerate the outcome. List the conclusions the audience should draw from your effort. Setting a goal for your communication helps you collect and present ideas logically.

General Communication Skills #1: Begin at the End

General Communication Skills: Begin at the EndAn effective way to prepare a speech, presentation, report, résumé, or, an email is to begin at the end. Place yourself in the recipient’s or the audience’s shoes and look from the outside in by asking a few questions on the outcome of your communication. Write down all the outcomes you desire from your communication; write down everything that comes to mind without filtering any probable outcomes.

Suppose, for example, you are preparing for a speech. Ask yourself “Who is my audience? What do my listeners want to know? What should be the key take-away messages from my speech? What do I want the audience to remember or do following my speech?”

Once you gather all the intended outcomes, prioritize and collect the core conclusions you intend to present your audience. Then, work backwards: assemble your concepts, anecdotes and statistics that support them, and compose a logical flow of thoughts leading to those conclusions.

The key advantage of beginning at the end is a unique perspective that enables you to control the direction of your thoughts during preparing your communication. Consequently, you can toss out any idea that does not directly relate to the messages you want to deliver.

Communication is all about the audience. Beginning at the end effectively helps you focus on the messages you want to deliver to your audience.