Monday, June 27, 2011

I Write Too Much

I'm a classic example of the fact that knowing your weaknesses doesn't ensure that you'll correct them. Case in point: my emails are invariably too long. If the subject matter lends itself to or seems (to me) to require any amount of significant detail, I find myself utterly unable to be concise. There's simply too much information that I believe the reader needs to have, and the fact that the volume of info will cause the reader to skip over the bulk of it (possibly missing key points) is, in my mind, not so much irrelevant as unavoidable. Try as I might, I simply cannot bring myself to leave out key info. This has been a problem for me for many years. Time and again, people - friends, coworkers, even bosses - have told me that my emails are too long, too pretentious-sounding, and aren't as effective as they should be. Yet in every instance, they've also conceded that the information in them is absolutely valuable and necessary.

Therein lies the crux of my problem. It's not that the content of the emails is inappropriate, it's that the forum is. Emails don't lend themselves well to careful analysis. People don't expect to have to read them all that closely. After all, most businesspeople are likely to receive upwards of 100 emails in a given day (sometimes MANY more than that) and they get used to skimming them, glossing over the contents, and then moving on. And what's come along even more recently that's replacing email for many people? Texting - which is even shorter, less detailed, and less able to convey critical information.

I confess, this isn't something I've found an ideal solution to. My best approach, when something is really important, has been to call someone on the phone or speak to them in person. This way I can convey key info in detail, using tone of voice and inflection to hold their attention and help emphasize how vital the information is to them. This has several downsides compared to email, however, so it's not perfect. For example:

1. Email leaves a written record. The recipient can refer to it later to ensure they haven't forgotten anything. I can refer to it later to recall exactly what I said and when. It also serves as a CYA (ie. "Cover Your Ass") in the event that I have to defend what info I provided and at what time.

2. Email is convenient. I can write it whenever I have time, and the recipient can read it whenever they have the time. The approaches of using the phone or speaking face-to-face require that I work around my schedule and the schedule of whomever else I need to communicate with, which in the busy, meeting-intensive business world can take hours and result in a lot of lost time playing phone-tag.

3. My memory sucks. It sucks worse when I'm face-to-face with somebody and I have a mental list of things I need to tell them. Some mischievous part of my subconscious likes to ensure that I forget at least one important detail, maliciously blanking it from my memory. This means I have to either bring a list and refer to it (which doesn't always help - if I'm nervous for whatever reason, I'm inclined to forget to look at my list) or go back after and follow up with a, "oh yeah, I forgot." Both of those solutions look bad.

4. Unless I call a meeting or schedule a conference call, I can only face-to-face with one person at a time. It's not uncommon that the info I need to get across is relevant to a range of individuals. I can send one email to all of them at once, or spend hours (or days) trying to bring them together at a mutually-convenient time, hope all of them show up, and tell them in person. Assuming I've got the clout to call them together and get them to come.

One way to handle some of these issues is to have a face-to-face followed by an email where I recap the key points of the conversation. This ends up taking as much time as the email I'd have preferred to send in the first place, compounded with the time I had to spend tracking them down and having the conversation in person.

What I really need is a type of psionic mental command power with which I can compel people to just read my vital, useful, clever emails. The world would be a better place if they did. Hey, wait - you read this all the way through, right?

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