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Ask the Expert: Effective Emails


Emails are such an essential form of communication in the 24-7, global economy, but how do we ensure that they do not lead to miscommunication? Our expert shares some ideas.

Question: After seeing some very poor examples of emails leaving our office to customers I have been asked to produce a session to improve these. Does anyone have any new, creative, and fun ideas that they would share with me? I have not had to look at emails before and would really appreciate some help.

Graham O'Connell replies: I guess I should start by saying a few words about Netiquette. It might be useful to have a simple guide or checklist of what good practice looks like (there are plenty of examples on the web you can use for inspiration). You may want to offer tips on content and style but also go further to cover email management. This will set the benchmark against which you can assess what staff are doing at the moment, and before you know it you will have done a needs analysis.

When it comes to “training” there are a number of (creative) options, some of which may fit your culture and others not.
Here are some examples:

  • Get staff to vote for the examples of poor practice that most annoy them. Publish the results. Perhaps use the top 10 in a poster campaign.

  • Send everyone a “spot the mistakes” email with half a dozen typical errors. Ask staff if they can spot all the errors or examples of poor practice. Put the winners in draw for a prize.

  • Do an impressions exercise: give out some real (but anonymous) examples to small groups and ask them to write down three or four key words to describe the type of impression that email might make with a customer. Share the impressions and what led to that impression.

  • Give everyone an extract from a real (or realistic but constructed) email and get them to read it out to the group expressing things exactly how they are spelt, and LOUDLY if there are capital letters.

  • If the emails are typically long and complex, apply something like the Gunning Fog Index
    If the emails are too casual or too stuffy, get people to rate examples on a 10 point scale (with “very informal” and “very formal” at the extremes). Then agree what number best represents the degree of formality you want to portray. Now get them to re-write the email so that it scores a 4, for example, if that is the goal that is agreed.

  • Act out an email exchange as if it were on the phone. This is one of the rare occasions when overacting is an advantage not a problem.

  • Get people in groups and ask them to come up with ways that would change the culture to one where emails would naturally be of a high standard.

  • Have a best email of the year award - get people to send in nominations, choose the top five and pass them out for a vote.

  • Employ an actor to rove around the office asking to look at emails and berating people for how hopeless they are (this is better for creating a stir around the topic than solving the issue directly).

  • Every week for two months put a hot tip (written as an email then printed and laminated). Put the tip on the back of toilet doors.

  • You'll need to stimulate them enough to actually change their ingrained habits as well as educating them on good practice. The more creative you are, the greater the possible impact and potential risk. You will need to weigh this up. Also, see it as a campaign, doing any one of the above may not be enough: do a couple of things over time and do them well.

    Our expert:
    Graham O'Connell MA Chartered FCIPD FITOL FInstCPD ACIM: Graham is head of organisational learning and standards at the National School for Government. He has particular responsibility for developing and promoting best practices in learning and development. A regular feature writer for professional magazines, he has had numerous articles published on topics such as organisational learning, training strategy, coaching and facilitation. You have probably seen Graham presenting at conferences too.

    As a consultant Graham has 25 years experience in technical, management, trainer training and as an adviser to organisations on the strategic aspects of L&D. He has extensive overseas experience including working in countries as diverse as Russia and Bermuda, China and Kosovo. Graham still does some occasional tutoring on CIPD and University of Cambridge qualification programmes and runs occasional Masterclasses. He also runs a number of networks including the Strategic L&D Network (for Heads of L&D in the Civil Service), the Henley Public Sector Knowledge Management Forum and the Leadership Alliance Exchange.


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