This is what happened to Chad.

Chad is a software developer at a trading firm.

Although fluent, English is his second language and this makes him nervous about his communication abilities.

He has also had feedback that his communication can be too aggressive, which has heightened his anxiety.

However, when I meet with him I find a warm, engaging and enthusiastic person who does not seem the least bit aggressive.

So, what is going on here?

To illustrate, I will first outline the situation that led to a lengthy and frustrating email chain, then offer our before and after emails before offering two questions you can ask to avoid putting yourself in Chad’s position.

The situation that led to a lengthy and frustrating email chain

When Chad and I worked through an email chain between him and some overseas colleagues, the issue slowly became apparent.

His communication was polite and detailed.

But it missed one critical ingredient.

Instead of explaining why something needed to be done, he jumped straight into how the overseas colleagues needed to do it.

This, in turn, led to a ten-email chain debating the details of the task, with a heavy overtone of ‘do it yourself’ from the overseas team.

Let's have a deeper look at the issue by reviewing the original email and an alternative.

Our before and after emails

Even though the information is technical, I think you’ll see what I mean when I show you the original (sanitised) ‘so what’ message versus the revised one:

Original – We need your help to come up with the implementation that supports System A in filtering the symbols and foreignID.

Revised – Given our own ABC filtering mechanism leads to a configuration that is hard to maintain, we need your help to implement ‘System A’ in filtering the symbols and foreignID.

Interestingly, the rest of the email changed dramatically too. 

It no longer consisted of a list of reasons why the suggestions from the overseas team were wrong, it included a list of reasons why he needed their help.

On reflection, he decided that if he had drafted this email in the first place the whole chain of about 10 emails would have been avoided.

And the problem would have been fixed much sooner.

So, how to avoid this happening to you?

Two questions to ask to avoid putting yourself in Chad’s position

This experience raises an important issue for me that I hope will help you also.

Before ‘smashing out' your next email request ask yourself these two questions so you are sure about your audience's situation:

  1. Are we certain that the people we are asking to help us know why we need their help, not just how we want them to help?
  2. How much time would we get back each week if we routinely slowed down and stopped to think about our audience's situation before we hit send?

I hope that helps.

Have a wonderful week.

Keywords: strategy, emails, ESL


This post was prepared by Davina Stanley, founder of The Clarity First Program and author of The So What Strategy.

Davina has been helping experts communicate complex ideas since joining McKinsey as a communication specialist 20+ years ago. 

She helps experts clarify their thinking so they can prepare powerful and strategic communication in any format. It might mean preparing for a difficult meeting, getting ready for a project steering committee, putting forward a business case or writing a board paper.

She bases her approach on The Minto Pyramid PrincipleⓇ combined with other powerful techniques to help experts of all kinds globally strengthen their communication skills.