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Why is email so hard to read?

Why is email so hard to read?

Have you ever written an email to your business associates with a ton of valuable information about a meeting and still they ask, “What time is the meeting?”, “Where is the meeting?” “What are we meeting about” or “I don’t understand what this is about”?

We’ve all been there at some point and puzzled, “Why don’t people read or remember my emails?” After spending hours writing out details to everyone on the distribution list what they need to know, nobody seems to have read it. Then the calls pour in asking questions that are clearly ALL addressed in the email.

The answer lies in basically three areas of our human nature cognitive response; 1) we skim what we want to know, 2) we quickly assess whether we need to know this right now, and 3) we generally retain only a very small fraction of what we read, especially if we did not have the intention of remembering. Source: http://bit.ly/2Tk0AYV

Now, let’s acknowledge that not every message is suited for delivery by email, such as getting agreement or a decision in your favor, or any time a phone call or two can accomplish the same result in less time. For now, let’s assume that the email you are composing is to provide valuable information to your team or company and email itself is the appropriate communication medium for this message.

Why do people still not read the email?

I see several common causes for people not reading emails:

  • The email is not timely
  • The email does not get to the point
  • The email doesn’t highlight the calls to action
  • The email is unnecessarily long with unimportant details
  • The email is just is a bit above my head
  • The email doesn’t explain the goals

If your position is to rally the troops, teach at conferences, or push out communication in your organization or business, these written communication tips can make a big impact in achieving optimal results.

1. The Hook – Start with a good subject line

First impressions are everything and your subject line is your “hook.” Depending on the culture of your company and your personality, it can either be fun and quirky or a basic a call to action. The goal is to get them to open your message.

A few examples:

  • Important information about your benefits. PLEASE READ!
  • You are personally invited to be part of something BIG, NEW, and EXCITING
  • Do you want to increase your take-home pay?

2. Right Timing — Are you sending the email too far in advance?

Timing is everything. The ”forgetting curve” was proposed in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied his own ability to remember a string of words over different periods of time. He found a consistent decline in his ability to recall these words over time. Immediately after the learning experience, his recall was 100 percent, but his memory dropped steeply the first few days. Further, he found that the memory loss was exponential.
Subsequent work suggests that the rate of forgetting depends on the initial learning conditions. In Ebbinghaus’ experiment, he was deliberately trying to memorize the string of words. How intently do you really think your your readers are trying to learn the details of your email? They’re not.

3. The Goal – Determine the goal of your email

What is the purpose of your email? This is important to help you decide what is needed in your message, as well as what is not. You should use this as a guide to stay laser-focused on that goal and exclude information that does not support your goal. Too often emails are written that include unnecessary facts and information, which only serve to confuse the reader.

The purpose of the email should be clear to the reader from the beginning. This is a common theme in effective communication, especially in abbreviated encounters: put your bottom line up front. Let the reader know exactly why he or she needs to read the email, and what you are asking of her or him.

Is there a call to action? Especially in business communication, emails frequently contain meeting invitations. The sender wants the receiver to click the “add to calendar” link. Encourage them by making it clear this is a goal of the email, which also creates an automated follow-up action through the user’s calendar app.

4. The Length – Get to the point

I’m as guilty of this as anyone who receives a rambling email. After just a sentence or two, if I sense that the sender does not value my time by getting to the point, I stop reading. If it’s from someone I know, I may call and ask them to explain the purpose of the email. If I don’t know the sender, as long as it’s not from a key executive, the email will often go unread or deleted.
Instead, invert the conversation – start with the bottom line up front! It’s a proven technique that experts around the world agree on when it comes to abbreviated conversations – abbreviated meaning short encounters that match email as well as elevator speeches. Once the bottom line has been declared, your intent and purpose are known and not left to the imagination. Save the long stories for the hour-long presentation where you need to entertain your audience for a prolonged period of time.
Also, use bullet points. Whether it is an email to provide information leading up to a meeting, or a follow-up email from a tutorial or new procedure and you have a ton of information, highlight the key points in bullet points with links to read more information at the time that is convenient for them.

5. Is It Relevant to Me? – Make it relevant to the shareholders or team

Too often, email is written for a general audience and the sender assumes the receiver wants or cares about the information. The opposite is actually true. Most people look for the “what’s in it for me” angle in every message and, when it’s missing, the message becomes a set of irrelevant facts that are easily forgotten.

6. The Media: In our social media age, people respond to visuals or sound bites.

Using bit-sized words and/or visuals provides simple communication and is to the point. Word choice represents a very small fraction of communication–something like 15%–of the potential of interpersonal communication. While there are scientific differences of opinion about the numbers, we know that written communication–including email–eliminates body language, tone of voice, and even culture when a sender and a receiver do not share similar cultural norms. Depending on our instinctive behavior, our brains take in information differently. One person can be visual, while the other more analytical. The result is that your email should appeal to a wide audience that consumes information differently. It needs to use a number of techniques, such as visuals, sounds and words to relate to a wider audience.

7. Follow-up. Don’t assume your audience read and absorbed your message.

One of the most important tenets of interpersonal communication is feedback. This occurs in natural conversation. When you don’t understand something, you furrow your brow and ask for clarification. As a speaker, you read your audience’s reaction and instinctively know when something needs clarification. In online communication, you can’t see the furrowed brow, so the appropriate alternative is to follow up on the original email. Invite questions. Issue a specific call to action – accept a meeting invitation or reply back, whatever it takes to get a pulse on your reading audience.
Also, if you communicated something early with a deadline that is now approaching, very few people dislike a follow-up email reminding them of the approaching deadline and why they should take immediate action. Follow-up is automated with some calendaring applications, but is often otherwise underused by business professionals.

Following these seven simple steps can increase your open rates, retention span and help you achieve effective communication to achieve optimal results in your business or organization in our digital age.

If you have any questions, email me at tomspiglanin@gmail.com and sign up for my monthly Newsletter or share with a friend.