Kim Arnold is the author of a new book, Email Attraction: Get What You Want Every Time You Hit Send (Available Now, Rethink Press)

How many times over the past months have you found yourself hammering out an email starting: 

‘I understand you must be busy, but I was wondering when you’ll be able to get back to me?’

Or ‘As per my last email…’, ‘Please find re-attached for your convenience’, ‘Just checking in’ or the ultimate in passive-aggressive: ‘Sorry if I was unclear in my previous 15 emails.’

It seems like the Molotov cocktail of homeschooling, lockdown, Brexit, a global pandemic and having to decide what to cook for dinner (again) is pushing us all to breaking point.  

And we’re taking it out on our inboxes.

It’s true – email can drive us nuts at times.  But used correctly, email is your shortcut to getting people to do what you want, fast.  It’s an incredible communication tool that can persuade, influence and move projects forward at lightning speed.  You just need to know how.

Here are my 5 essential tips to help you keep your cool while emailing in lockdown. 

Down boy! Show your inbox who’s in charge

It can be hard to ignore your inbox with its 58 unread emails blinking alluringly on your phone. ‘Open me’, it whispers.  ‘Get your dopamine hit here…’ 

But when you do, it’s never just a quick glance.  Oh no.  You get sucked into a pit of emails for hours – opening, reading, sighing, closing again, possibly banging your head against your desk in despair.  And before you know it, it’s 3pm and all you have to show for it is a few sent emails (you picked off the easy ones) and no ‘actual work’ done.

Listen – your inbox is not the boss of you.  It doesn’t deserve your full focus all the time.  It shouldn’t gobble up your primetime slots.  Email is simply a communication tool, not your entire working day, so show it who’s really in charge: 

  • Don’t start your day with email, especially if you’re a morning person.  Instead, use that time to think about what you want to achieve for the day and get stuck into something important that needs your full attention

  • Batch email writing and reading and diarise slots.  I schedule emailing for late morning, after I’ve done a couple of hours of brain work but I’m still fresh, after lunch (when I have an energy dip and can reply to the easier emails) and at the end of the day (so I can sleep easy knowing I’ve replied to all urgent/important emails)

Simples! Make the next step easy

One of our major teeth-grinding frustrations with email is that people don’t do what we want them to: e.g. reply with information, pay an invoice, make an introduction, agree to a meeting or Just. Do. The. Damn. Thing. Already.

But (you’re not going to like this), more often than not the fault lies with us, the email writer, not with the recipient.  This is because we haven’t made it clear exactly what we want them to do.  We’ve made their next step difficult, not easy.  And that’s why they haven’t replied.

For example, you might send an email ending with: 

‘Please give me your feedback asap’

But ‘Give feedback’ is too vague.  Should it be via email, Zoom or phone?  Are you looking for a quick ‘Yes, looks fine’ or a line-by-line analysis?  And ‘asap’ can vary wildly depending on how important the recipient thinks it is (they might consider two weeks ‘asap’ when you in fact mean two hours).

Here’s the thing: If you want people to act, you have to:

  • ask them for a SPECIFIC, ACHIEVABLE action
  • ideally with a SPECIFIC timeline

In the marketing world, it’s called a call-to-action (CTA).

A good CTA makes the next step easy and obvious.

So, instead of ‘Please give me your feedback asap’ you could write: 

Please email me by Wednesday 18th and tell me:

  1. Does the image on slide 2 work with the text?
  2. Do you want to include any other case studies or is the Megacorp one enough?
  3. Will the client understand the graph on slide 4 or should we simplify?

It’s much more likely to get a response as you’ve broken down clear next steps i.e. 3 specific actions they can tackle straight away, with a deadline of Wednesday.

Easy tiger…step away from the send button 

Emotions are running high right now.  We’ve been cooped up for months.  It’s still dark and cold and we’d sell our left kidney for a night out on the margaritas.

Frustrations at our kids/partner/waistband (why so tight?) spill out into our work.  And it’s tempting to vent our anger on our inbox, sending curt, passive aggressive or downright rude emails.

But as you probably already know, nothing good ever comes of an emotional email.  You’re likely to regret it moments after you hit send.

And it’s all too easy with email, where we can fire out our frustrations with just a couple of clicks.

So here’s how to avoid sending angry emails:

  1. Wait a few hours (better still overnight) before sending your email.  Think about your reader and how they might react. Will your email really help you get what you want in the longer term? Or are you just appeasing your inner child right now?

Chances are, you won’t feel like sending it once you’ve calmed down. If you still think it’s worth it in the morning, at least you’ll have a better grasp of the risks versus the rewards.

2. Ask yourself what the real problem is.  Is it really that colleague/client/co-worker?  Or something or someone else entirely?

Write your thoughts down and see how you feel.   You might find the writing process so cathartic you don’t need that email or conversation after all.  

Shh! Use your two-syllable secret weapon 

If you’ve sent an email with a clear call-to-action (see tip #2 above) you hopefully won’t have to do too much following up.  But sometimes we still need to give people a nudge to get them to respond.

Here’s a two-syllable secret weapon for you that persuasive people use all the time: the word ‘because’. ‘Because’ is a miracle worker when it comes to getting people to act.  Studies show we’re conditioned to comply when people give us a reason, however spurious it is.

Need to get clients to process dull paperwork? Give them a reason why (‘because it means we won’t have to keep pestering you for information all the time’). 

Want to get invoices paid? Tell them why prompt payment is so important to you (‘because it means we can pay our suppliers faster and get your project finished quicker’)

So try using ‘because’ in your next follow up and see the difference it makes.

Aim lower.  Much lower.  There you go.

My final tip is about getting real right now.  Many entrepreneurs I speak to are wonderful obsessives.  Their attention to detail and perfectionism gets them a long way in business.  But it’s a nightmare for email.

They worry about emulating the inboxes of the great and the good, who write about their ‘inbox zero’ approach or how they only ‘touch’ each email once.  

Here’s the rub:  it’s easy to delegate when you’re the big cheese of a corporation.  However, as an entrepreneur you are often the marketing, sales, finance, product and HR teams combined.  There IS no-one to delegate to, and so the responsibility of replying emails sits with you and you alone.

You’re also often juggling email alongside family life and other commitments and you don’t need the extra pressure of a completely clear inbox right now, thank you very much.

So be kind to yourself and work within what’s realistic right now:

  • Don’t bother filing your emails into folders if you don’t have time.  Email search is so good you can find pretty much any email these days
  • Take your emails off your phone – during lockdown at home you can look at your computer/laptop whenever you need to.   By not having email on your phone you’ll at least get a break from time to time 
  • Pick up the phone if an email is taking you too long to write – a conversation might be much quicker
  • Don’t beat yourself up about not replying to emails straight away – people will understand (often the only person who notices is you)

So there we have it.  5 tips to help you banish email overwhelm and keep your cool when emailing during lockdown.  Your inbox will thank you.

Where you can find me

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Kim Arnold

Kim Arnold

About your author

Kim is a business communication consultant, speaker and author who shows professionals how to get noticed, make their messages stick and be remembered (in all the right ways). 

Kim helps the world’s leading organisations – including FTSE 250 businesses, international banks, global law firms, tech scale-ups and more – transform their communication, marketing and branding, connect with their audiences and get the results they need.

Kim is also a Panel Tutor at The University of Cambridge’s Institute for Continuing Education where she teaches marketing and branding.  

Kim Arnold is the author of a new book, Email Attraction: Get What You Want Every Time You Hit Send (Available Now, Rethink Press)

You can find out more about Kim and her business here.

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