I screwed up this week.
I sent an email that started like this: “So, I was a little bored on the plane…” and then went on to request comments on a report I had drafted.
The email went out to five people, all directly involved in the report. Nobody replied.
I met with the people. I requested that they look at the report I had sent out. Nothing.
And then one of them said, “You know, when I saw your email, I thought, ‘Here is something unimportant that she only did because she had a bunch of spare time.’ And I don’t have a bunch of spare time right now. So I just put it aside.”
I was dismayed. Is my reputation among my colleagues so tenuous that people will only read my emails if I get the wording right?
“Don’t feel bad,” said the woman who had pointed out the flaws in the original missive. “It’s not you. People are lazy.”
So I resent the email. This time the subject read, “Request for review.” The body said, “Please see attached; I’m presenting it tomorrow so the sooner you can get me feedback the better.”
Within an hour, four people had replied. (The fifth is in Saudi Arabia.) I was delighted, and felt a bit silly. I know people are lazy (based on my highly scientific formula “I am lazy -- I am people -- people are lazy”). This fact is just one of the three rules I live by when trying to communicate something or evoke a response. Following these three rules -- Colbin's Trinity of Human Behavior -- will greatly increase your chances of success in nearly any endeavor.
1. People are lazy. Since the dawn of time, A/B testing has repeatedly shown that even a tiny amount of friction will dramatically decrease participation. If your aim is to get people to read your emails, make it easy for them: be brief and to the point. If you want people to respond, say, “RESPONSE REQUESTED” in the subject and put the question in bold at the top. Avoid clever intros like, “So, I was a little bored on the plane…”
2. People are busy. I keep a pretty tight inbox, but it still adds up during the day -- during which time I have lots of meetings and appointments and sometimes I even do work. How do you deal with busy people? The same way you deal with lazy people: make it super-easy on them, easy to process and easy to respond or take whatever action you want them to take.
3. Whatever you are working on is more important to you than it is to them. You know when your grandmother sends you one of those ridiculous emails with a PowerPoint presentation on 50 Ways To Say Yes To Life or something? And then like a day later calls you to ask whether you got it and wasn’t it so cute, especially that picture of the kitten hanging off the branch, and she was surprised you hadn’t replied yet to agree? And you’re like, “I’m so sorry I didn’t get back to you, Grandma, the kitten was totally adorable,” but inside you’re rolling your eyes and struggling, because you really love your Grandma -- but doesn’t she realize you have BETTER THINGS TO DO than respond to her STUPID email about the STUPID cat picture???
That cat picture is important to Grandma, but the situation probably could have been avoided if she recognized how unimportant it is to you.
This column is called Online Spin, but what I keep coming back to is that the online world spins, always, around people. The more you can accept people as we are, with all our glorious flaws and foibles, the more effective you’ll be in this strange digital world.