Right-Sizing Email Communication

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, June 2021

The meeting with her supervisor left Brittany confused and angry. After reviewing project status as they usually did each week, Eric said, “There is something else.” He proceeded to inform Brittany that her co-workers had complained about the number and length of the emails she sent.

“They simply don’t have time to sift through all of the details to get to the main point,” Eric explained.

In her role as project manager at a consumer electronics manufacturer, Brittany had often been praised for her attention to detail. To her, the emails were an extension of her meticulous tracking of complex projects.

“I thought people would be happy to receive the information,” she said at our coaching session. “Wouldn’t someone want to know everything that is happening with a project?”

“Not necessarily,” I replied. “It sounds like you have been over-communicating.”

Brittany turned on her laptop and showed me several email examples. It was clear after scanning them that they were too long, and far too detailed.

One problem was that Brittany was not considering the needs, knowledge and expectations of her audience. Her missives contained a lot of basic background information that her colleagues already knew. Important data was further obscured by irrelevant information. One sentence read, “At the beginning of Friday’s meeting, the developers thought that the deliverables would be two days late, but after the engineers suggested some fixes, it was determined that the original deadline would be met.” The purpose of the email was to update project status. Therefore, the developers’ initial concern that tasks would be late was irrelevant.

I suggested that Brittany first create an outline to clarify the purpose of an email. What, specifically, did it need to convey? She also needed to think about her audience. For each point she intended to make, I asked her to complete this sentence: “This is important to my audience because… .”

For example, her colleagues needed to know about bottlenecks, specification changes and other situations that could impact workflow and deadlines. Members of the senior management team, on the other hand, were interested in strategy and sales results, not the specifics of fixing a bug.

Brittany and I also discussed the impact of lengthy emails on productivity. She acknowledged sometimes spending an hour or more crafting the messages, which took time away from more pressing tasks. The emails were also a burden to the recipients, who had limited time to read the documents. She agreed to review five or six emails sent by her colleagues in the previous week. She would make notes about the typical length and level of detail and use this as a guide for herself.

It only took one week of implementing the suggestions for Brittany and her co-workers to notice the difference. She was especially happy about the time savings, which significantly lowered her stress levels.

Copyright 2021, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching