“Can You Help Me Soften The Tone In My E-Mails – Without Sacrificing Efficiency?”

Randy, what tips do you have for softening the tone in my e-mails without sacrificing efficiency?
I find anything other than direct annoying, so I’m really at a loss.

This was the question sent by a person in a professional, high-stress, fully-packed, heavily-scheduled job.  It is an understandable question.

On the one hand, you want to stay human, personable, approachable.  Relational is the way to go. 

On the other hand, you’ve got too much on your plate, you have too many people to see, too many e-mails to answer.  You need to be as efficient as possible.  Direct/To-The-Point is the way to go. 

So, what advice would you give this high-paced, overly-busy, sometimes-too-direct communicator?

Here are my thoughts.  First, no matter how busy you are, remember that that is a person on the receiving end of your e-mail.  Remember common courtesy – always!  Please; thank you; how are you doing?  I remember the excellent HBO movie about Temple Grandin.  Temple Grandin has autism, and she doesn’t quite relate to relating issues.  But her mother, an aunt, a great! Teacher, taught her to “do” the tasks of common courtesy.  I wrote about this in my post Ten Lessons about Business and Personal Success from Temple Grandin (the person, and the movie).  Here’s one of those ten lessons:

Success requires “suck-up” skills. (phrase borrowed from Carville and Begala).  Because of her autism, Temple Grandin did not understand the value of sucking up, and it did not come naturally to her.  Apparently (this is assumed more than stated or demonstrated in the movie), her mother and aunt had drilled into her the value of simple, polite manners.  (“My name is Temple Grandin.  Pleased to meet you.” And then, right away, she would launch into her real question or message).  And though she sounded impersonal in her use of such everyday politeness, she made herself do it.  What a testament to the need to develop what we now call networking skills.

So, I think my advice to this inquirer is simple:  always remember the human element in any and every communication moment.  It might help to read (re-read) the terrific book Encouraging the Heart:  A Leaders Guide to Rewarding and Encouraging Others by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Pozner.  Here is a key quote from the book:

This story is a constant reminder to us of the power of a very simple principle of human performance:  people like to be recognized for doing their best. 

So, if at the other end of your e-mail is a person who is in need of encouragement (and, that is always who is at the other end of your e-mail), then remember to be encouraging even as you “get to your point.”  When you construct an e-mail, always remember the two elements:  “Relational” elements and “Efficiency” elements.  Maybe this table will help.

Relational Elements Efficiency Elements
First, greet “warmly”
Always include some kind of short, but “genuine” thank you
Always sound “collaborative,” not “bossy”
Then, give your information clearly
And, make your request clearly
And always include a preemptive “thank you” for the reader’s collaboration in the effort.   

So, to “soften the tone,” start with this – soften the tone, by adding relational elements to every e-mail.

As you develop, cultivate, and master this habit, it might be a real help to read a few of your e-mails each day out loud.  Listen to your words; your tone.  Make sure you are including the Relational elements, even as you get to the point a little more softly.

Good luck.

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