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Efficiency Isn’t Everything: 3 Practical Tips for Using Email Effectively

3 Practical Tips for Using Email Effectively

The following is adapted from The Irreverent Guide to Project Management.

It takes mere seconds to jot en email and blast it across the aether. Meetings, on the other hand, are better measured in minutes—or even hours! That’s why it’s tempting to ditch face-to-face contact altogether and opt for the more efficient means of communication. 

Yet efficiency isn’t everything. Professor Albert Mehrabian has shown that the written word can only convey 7 percent of the intended meaning, while 93 percent of our message (the part that conveys our tone, emotion, gestures, and nuanced feelings) gets lost. That’s why you should never use email to diffuse complex information, communicate, or solve a problem.Face-to-face communication isn’t always possible though, and sometimes you just have to rely on the written word. In those situations, here are three practical guidelines to ensure that your emails are as effective as possible. 

The Rule of Three Exchanges

Whether consciously or unconsciously, email is the biggest procrastination tool at our disposal. When someone sends an email, the receiver understands that a response is required in a reasonable amount of time, but they are not generally required to respond immediately. 

That means there's a lag between the original email and a response, where the sender is playing the waiting game. If the receiver responds with a question, clarification, or a response that is inadequate to the request, there will be time lost before the original sender even gets around to reading it, then another email will be sent, and the waiting game will continue.

If your goal is to move a project forward as aggressively as possible, then the waiting game is bad news. Therefore, the rule of three requires the Project Manager to pick up the phone

or engage in face-to-face communication after three email exchanges. Send your original email, receive and review the response, and if an additional email is required, craft and send it. 

Then, as soon as you hit send on the third exchange, pick up the phone or get on your feet and walk across the hall! That way, you’ll cut down on all that waiting, and you can make sure that both sides are confident about the contents of the exchange. 

The Email War Is No Bueno

As I mentioned, email only captures 7 percent of a sender’s intended message, and our internal filters add significantly to our interpretation of what we are reading. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t misunderstood a sender’s intent and become emotional only to find out that the sender meant no harm. 

When this happens, people sometimes fire back a response that starts a fierce back-and-forth email war that escalates until someone takes the high road and picks up the phone. This is not only procrastination at its worst but very passive-aggressive behavior that a leader can’t afford to indulge in.

If you receive an email that makes you emotional, do not respond. First, be cool and give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Then, when calm, pick up the phone or engage in a little old-fashioned face-to-face to lead the situation forward. Even if you find out the sender did intend to offend you, indulging your ego (the three-year-old inside you) will not serve you as a leader and will not help you move your project forward as aggressively as possible.

No CC without Clarification

It has become standard practice in corporate America to copy or “CC” when sending emails. Ostensibly, this is to keep people in the loop and/or to turn up the heat on the addressee.

However, if CC recipients do not understand the context of the email, receiving a copied email will confuse them and leave them uncertain about what they are supposed to do with the information they have received. And it will most certainly cause executives to become anxious.

Keep people in the loop by placing everyone that is receiving a report on the “To” line. Don’t copy anyone or create a “stand-out” by placing someone on the CC line. This causes people to wonder why someone is on the CC line, and the dissonance deters focus from project work and gets in the way of moving the project forward as aggressively as possible.

Another way to ensure you get the desired result is to clarify in the email what you need from the CCed person. It’s really easy to add an “@[Name of Person on CC line]” to an email and then explain why you have added them, clarifying the outcome you are seeking.

If you’re trying to turn up heat on a project team member by copying an executive, contact the executive before the CC. Explain the results you need to obtain from their team member and the support you need from them to help the team member achieve greater success. This also ensures that the executive supports the solution being proposed. 

Copying people without clarifying the outcome you seek is not leadership. It’s reckless. 

Efficient vs. Effective

Many people assume that efficiency is ideal. We hear that time is of the essence, and getting things done quickly always pushes a project forward. There is some truth to the notion that quick and orderly communication is the key to success, but speed is not the most important aspect of a well-done project. 

Effective communication is always more valuable than efficient communication. It cuts off confusion, disputes, and hurt feelings at the pass, and it ensures that everyone involved in a project is clear on the task ahead. Any communication that leads to confusion is a failed attempt at leadership and certainly doesn’t serve to move your project forward. 

Remember, you can be efficient with things, but it takes time to be effective with people.

For more advice on handling team difficulties, you can find The Irreverent Guide to Project Management on Amazon.

From the start of his career spent jumping out of helicopters in the United States Navy, J. Scott has a long history of leadership, servanthood, and bearing witness to the transformative power of getting shit done. Since starting 120VC he's personally overseen the global transformational efforts within organizations such as DirecTV, Trader Joe's, Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Mattel, and others. His team's unique, irreverent approach to change has generated breakthrough results and created meaningful jobs. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, J. Scott is a devoted husband and father and author of "It's Never Just Business: It's About People," and "The Irreverent Guide to Project Management," both available on

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