What to Do With Henry

By Pamela A. Scott

Did you know that your communication style can create a first impression, just like your clothing does? Are you into grunge, high fashion, or business casual? What does how you communicate say about you?

An executive team and I were sitting at their conference table talking about people’s communication styles and abilities. Joe chuckled to himself. Fred looked at Joe, smiled, and said, “I know who you’re thinking of, right?”

“Yep,” said Joe. “Henry.”

At that, they all chimed in with stories about how Henry can’t communicate. It seems Henry is one of those folks who writes really long emails and apparently believes people read them—all of them, all the way to the end.

Any action points get buried in the middle of paragraphs on pages 4 and 9 of 12. Henry also shares his thoughts and opinions—he does not censor himself in any way.

“Henry’s really a great guy,” Joe said. “He just doesn’t know how to communicate via email.”

It’s like the case at a utility company a few years ago. A junior staffer needed a specific piece of information from a VP. She wrote him an email asking for that info. He didn’t respond. She waited a few days and re-sent the email. The VP still didn’t respond. She tried it a third time with the same results.

After the third email, she finally walked into his office and asked why he didn’t respond to her email request. “I saw what the email was about, and since it didn’t apply to me, I didn’t read it all,” the VP said.

I couldn’t blame the VP when I saw the email. It was long, it was disorganized, and the action item for the VP was buried in the next-to-last paragraph.

Here is what I suggested Joe tell Henry, just like I told the junior staffer at the utility company.

  1. Think before you write an email. Who does it need to go to and what outcomes do you want?
  2. Realize no one will read your email past the first screen. Some folks won’t go more than a paragraph or two into the message.
  3. Highlight action items at the top of the email. If the message needs to be long, point out at the top that Sue needs to read paragraph 6, Bolly needs to see paragraph 9, and Sam needs to see paragraph 13. If your message is that long, you also need to number items so folks don’t have to count paragraphs.
  4. Don’t use email as a forum to vent or share your thinking. One client received a 15-page single-space email from a very angry and concerned employee. What a rant! That is not the action of a smart professional.
  5. Finally, if you’re using email to capture minutes of a meeting, just put the important points in the email. Don’t write it chronologically, the way minutes are typically written.

3 Responses to “What to Do With Henry”

  1. Jody Petrusek says:

    It is unfortunate that email and business etiquette isn’t touched on enough by organizations or during the college years. I have seen this many times over the years and I hate to admit, early in my career as a junior analyst, who didn’t want to bother people, would create long emails and figured if they had questions they would get back to me. They were a little more organized than the example, but none the less, no one was probably reading past the first paragraph. The unfortunate thing is that for almost a year I did this, until I was sitting with some co-workers who were commenting about someone else in the office and their long emails. I knew I did it as well and took it as maybe they were indirectly trying to give me a message. Needless to say, I picked up the phone more often and coordinated meetings to discuss key tasks. I am currently teaching Intro to Computers & Microsoft Office part-time and I cover these points during the Outlook section.

  2. Susan Childs says:

    Hey Pam Great email post! It is a shame but folks just don’t read period so, in my experience, anything past 40 words is too much. I very much like the suggestion that you indicate where people need to focus their attention if you do need to run long.

    The sad thing about all of this is that with the rapidly approaching virtual team world where your closest team members can be anywhere in the world, you need email to be effective. BUT, we also need to look within ourselves and take the time to READ… The other nations do– I know first hand. And English is often their second language…

    Ooh and to that point: If you have a global audience, keep that in mind in word choice and selection– try not to use big words when simple will do. And, don’t be judgmental of their typo’s or word choice– it does not detract from what they bring to the table. Call them if it’s unclear… Susan

  3. Terry says:

    Excellent stuff. Thanks for sharing. We would all do well to remember these points.

    If I may be so bold, I would like to add one more piece of advice; don’t confuse business correspondence with personal. I see it all too often, especially with recent graduates. Business correspondence should be properly formatted with attention to case, punctuation, grammar, and paragraph structure.

    Failure to follow the rules of proper business communication makes you look immature at best, just plain dumb at worst.

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