We all know it: We have a complex problem which we need to solve but we need to explain the problem first to a group of people to look for a solution or give sign-off.
That means we first need to get the attention of those people, make them understand the problem. If the problem you need to explain becomes complex it can be quite hard to do so.
Here are a few tips I try to stick to when I write my emails:
1. Purpose and Goal
Make the recipients understand purpose and goal. You are writing the email for a reason and not for the sake of writing a mail. Make that as short as possible.
Just as you do for your meetings: Give each email an AGENDA. People should know what your email is about before they read it.
2. Structure is key!
Structure your email into sections:
– Introduction & problem description: Why are you writing this mail and what do you expect.
– Symptoms: Say what you did, what you see and believe is wrong and what you would have expected to see instead. Never say: „Software XYZ is not working!„, because nobody knows what and how you expect it to work.
– Solution proposal: If you believe you have an idea what could be the reason for the problem and how it can be solved, then say that. But outline that this is only a guess. If you are wrong, then no problem.
– Conclusion: This is most important. After you have written and explained a lot, people are usually more confused than before. Summarize your mail in a few short notes.
3. Be polite
Never think your problem is the most important problem. Better always expect that everybody couldn’t care less about your stupid problem. If you think like that, you spent more thoughts into writing the mail and making a point. Do this in polite words. Remember you are dealing with human beings just like you who all have their own little problems, maybe a bad day and at the end of the day have to do their jobs – just like you. So just behave like you would expect it from everybody else too. If your colleagues are all assholes, then stand out of the crowd and do NOT be one!
4. Use screenshots, screenshots and screenshots!
In the IT and Software Development industry, problems are usually about software which happens on your screen. Instead of writing 10 long sentences about a problem you see on e.g. a Web page, just take a screenshot, add some red arrows and some circles to it and send it. If one screenshot isn’t enough, send another one.
Don’t even think of the larger size of your email. That doesn’t matter. Hard disk space is for free these days and productivity and information is more important!. Time is money.
I use SnagIt! for Windows or Skitch on my Mac for taking screenshots and adding annotations and stuff. Some of my mails consist only of screenshots because that might explain the problem without any words and the recipient sees exactly what I see. Make sure you use short keys to make screenshots. I just press the „Print“ button which brings up SnagIt. It is possible to write a mail with a screenshot within 5 seconds.
It makes clear that I want to point out that specific part of the text.
5. Do NOT use abbreviations
Instead of don’t, write do NOT.
Instead of can’t write cannot
Always write the word not in capital letters and maybe bold, if you want to highlight that this is important. When reading emails too fast that small word can be missed and maybe it turns the sense of your mail upside down.
6. Favor notes or bullet points over full sentences
If you are listing a couple of related thoughts, then just put it into bullet points or a numbered list instead of writing it into full sentences. That has the following advantages:
– people can refer to each bullet point / numbered item which is very exact. You immediately know what they are referring to.
– easier to see what belongs together. In long sentences it can get hard to distinguish between the different things
– they are shorter and people can read it faster. If something needs more explanation, people will ask you.
7. Summarize your mail
Always add a conclusion or summary to your mail. After you have written a lot of text, people are usually more confused because of information overload.
Thus summarize your mail at the end in 3-4 bullet points. It helps to get back to the main purpose and goal of your mail.