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Dear Business Leader: Hardly Anyone Is Reading Your Emails

Hardly anyone is reading your emails. And yet, email is still one of the most commonly used communication modalities in business. Why?

I’m going to say something that will likely be controversial: Hardly anyone is reading your emails. In a survey about workplace communication preferences, 60.8% of employees revealed that they either occasionally, often, or always ignore emails at work. And yet, email is still one of the most commonly used communication modalities in business. Why?

Photo: Mark E. Watson III, founder of Aquila Capital Partners | Source: Courtesy Photo

We set ourselves up for failure when it comes to communication because we think it’s easier to text or email, but with so many people skimming their inboxes and/or avoiding pathetically written emails, leaders need to consider new internal communication channels and technologies.

We can communicate more efficiently and effectively in the workplace—but only if we implement communication strategies for success. You may not realize it, but you’re probably not being as thoughtful as you could be when you email or send texts. As a result, you don’t receive the response you anticipate.

“I would’ve written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”

This is often what plagues leaders and their employees—the ability to be concise. Historically, this sentiment has been shared by French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Woodrow Wilson, among others. There are values and challenges with brevity, and lately, attempts to achieve it in written form seem few and far between.


A majority of communication is non-verbal

Let’s not forget the majority of communication is non-verbal. Renowned behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian conducted extensive research on body language and communication, which resulted in the 7-38-55 rule.

This rule indicates that only 7% of all communication is accomplished through the actual words spoken. The other components of our daily communication, such as our tone of voice and body language, make up 38% and 55%, respectively. Think about everything that is missed, then, when you communicate exclusively in writing. It’s no wonder things get lost in translation. You’ll always be more effective in how you communicate if it’s in person.

With many modes of communication available—phone, video, text, IM and messaging software, email, written letters, and verbal communication—it’s vital to select the communication medium best suited to the message—and your team should follow suit.


Communication mediums and platform consistency

Did you know that 86% of respondents blame lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures? No matter what communication medium you decide to go with, stick with it. Nothing makes work less productive than having to figure out whether you’ll get a response via email, text, collaborative messaging app, carrier pigeon—you get the point.

When you want to collaborate and converse with someone, you have to think through what you want to accomplish. For example, I may default to telephone for a short, quick discussion with people I am familiar with. If I’m familiar with how someone speaks, then I know the tone of their voice, and I can better understand what they’re trying to say by listening to how they say it. Video is always superior, of course, because we can see facial expressions and body posture on top of hearing the tone of voice.

Children today have the right idea: They FaceTime each other all the time. Their definition of picking up the phone is FaceTime. They don’t think twice about it. Fortunately, the days of dealing with glitchy software and needing to schedule calls way in advance are gone; now, we can communicate with each other via video (Google Meet, Zoom, FaceTime, etc.) instantaneously—as long as we have the bandwidth.

Yet that doesn’t mean you have to—nor should you—schedule a Zoom meeting every time you want to speak with someone. Consider, first, about the purpose of the communication—then, choose the method.

Stop defaulting to text or email, and create standards by which you and your team will communicate. Inadequate internal communication can cost companies $62.4 million per year, according to an SHRM report. If an email is going to be longer than three sentences—pick up the phone and call the recipient instead.

Texting is good for getting someone’s attention, but it’s not for conversation—and email isn’t either. There’s a depth of conversation that’s lost in email exchanges. As you converse in person, over a video call, or on the phone, what is said on the call may trigger a question or a new idea in you, and vice versa. You can work through questions, ideas, and actionable requests in real-time rather than a delayed back and forth.

Figure out what method works best for you and your business. Are you involved in large-scale construction or architecture projects, and most of your employees are out on the field? While on-site, maybe walkie-talkies are the fastest, most efficient way to get answers. Are all your employees using PCs? Then Microsoft Teams—or a platform like it—might be the best way to get messages across quickly.

Sometimes video/in-person communication isn’t possible. When we’re all operating on different time zones and collaboration isn’t needed, the new tools today allow for collaboration in an asynchronous way—and they’re still far more superior and a better alternative than email or text.

For me, communicating in a decentralized environment includes using asynchronous communication apps like Slack, ClickUp, Asana, or Trello for updates and anything that doesn’t need an immediate response or decision.

I only text in emergencies, when I’m trying to get someone’s attention, or when I’m trying to figure out where to meet. Email is good for sending attachments, making introductions, summaries from meetings, and other situations that don’t require a discussion. And when in doubt, pick up the phone. Our email inboxes are cluttered enough. Multi-messaging threads are inefficient, and most can be replaced with a 5-minute phone call.


Communicate with clarity and conviction

When you do use email (hopefully rarely), be precise and deliberate. Write and speak in complete sentences and prose—no fragmented bullet points with jargon and acronyms. It may seem obvious, but communicating clearly makes things so much easier for everyone in the workplace. Be specific. Make sure you’re understood. When you leave little room for interpretation, you’re empowering your team to be more productive.

Remember: If you’re going to put it in writing, you need to take the time to be thoughtful and concise so that your audience (the person you’re sending the email to) doesn’t have to take more time than necessary to understand what you’re trying to communicate to them.

Don’t be surprised if it takes you 10 minutes to write an email that it takes the receiver one minute to read.


Practice active listening

I say this often: Don’t multitask. It can lead to burnout, especially for leaders. While we are awake, we spend about 80% of our day communicating—and we spend about 45% of that listening. Focus on the person you are talking to. Stop doing everything else and really listen. While this may be difficult in a busy work environment, put down your phone, log off the computer, and clear your head of everything but the conversation at hand.

After you’ve done that, pay close attention to what is being communicated beyond the words being said. Make note of the tone, pauses, sighs, and if you are in person or on a video call, other nonverbal clues—gestures, expressions, and the overall posture of the speaker. In other words, pay attention to the unspoken elements and what they convey.

Make it clear that you are actively listening and engaged. Ask clarifying questions. Relevant questions demonstrate that you’re paying attention to what the speaker is saying, and you are invested in understanding.


Communicate with simplicity and consistency

The goal you should aim for in communicating with your team should be simple: be consistent—with video and in-person communication being the priority—and communicate with clarity.

Improving communication strategies may require more on your part (taking the time to be as clear and concise as possible), but enhancing your communication and listening skills will help you make meaningful connections with all of those around you—and that’s the first step to being a successful leader.


Mark E. Watson III’s mission is to support the next generation of entrepreneurs building purpose-driven, innovative, technology-enabled companies. He does this through Aquila Capital Partners, a proprietary capital investment fund he founded in 1998. Over the course of Mark’s career, which spans three decades, he built two public companies, the most recent being Argo Group, a specialty insurance, and reinsurance provider. Under Mark’s leadership, Argo Group went from being nearly insolvent to a global business with clients on six continents and over $3.5 billion dollars in revenue. He’s also credited with creating a new approach to specialty insurance and reinsurance.


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