Action Required: Read this article to understand how to better communicate to large groups using email

Who: Anyone who sends emails to large groups of people and expects others to take action on the emails

Action Required: Read this article, then try out this message format the next time you send an email to a group of people asking them to do something

When: As soon as you want to increase the effectiveness of your communication

What if I don’t take action?: Then you’ll likely keep sending emails to distribution groups asking for things then having to follow up with another email and then a phone call

Background: This is an email format I’ve been using for a while.

Every place I’ve worked has had a habit of sending long, complicated emails to entire departments asking people to take some action.

Most times this takes the form of multiple dense paragraphs of narrative explaining what led to the requested action and why it is important.

These emails are ineffective. These emails clutter our inboxes. These emails are a constant drag on our attention and provide unnecessary friction and distraction in our day.

Although we may think linearly and want to explain the lead-in to our thinking, most people get so many emails per day they don’t read anymore…they scan. And if you send an email that isn’t actually addressed to a specific person, each recipient will spend about 2 seconds scanning the email before they decide to hit delete.

So rather than fight the trend, let’s find a way to make those 2 seconds useful.

How to use the format

Subject

Subject of the email should be “Action Required: <summary of the action requested>” Examples:

Action Required: Run this script on your dev machines to fix your build

Action Required: Join the “Production Push” chatroom to see how this weekend’s promotion is going

Action Required: Submit all Q3 expense reports before the end of the month

Who

Who should be only the people that need to take action. This allows the message to be an FYI to everyone on the distribution list while clearly identifying who needs to take action. This allows you to send the message to a large group and have the specific people who need to take action still get the message clearly.

Who: All Scrum Teams

Who: Developers

Who: US-based employees

Who: Everyone

Action Required

Action Required should be exactly what you are asking them to do

Action Required: Run the attached script on your development environments

Action Required: Join the “#production-push” slack channel

Action Required: Submit all expenses (with documentation) into the reporting system

When

When is the deadline for the action. Try to be as specific as possible. Also try to avoid ambiguity based on international context (not everyone is in your timezone and not everyone puts the month at the beginning of a date)

When: Wednesday, September 7th, 1pm EDT

When: Wednesday, 7 September, 1pm EDT

When: Wednesday, 2016/09/07, 1pm EDT

When: Immediately

What if I don’t take action?

What if I don’t take action? tells them the consequences of ignoring the request. Sometimes the consequences are that you don’t receive a benefit. Other times the consequences are painful and destructive. This section lets people know how much they should care.

What if I don’t take action?: Your dev machine will be unusable

What if I don’t take action?: You will have no idea what is going on with the production push and will waste valuable time sending emails asking for status updates

What if I don’t take action?: You won’t get reimbursed until the end of next month

Background

Background is all the other detail you want to provide. The why behind the change. The story of how you came to make this request. Whatever you want (because most people won’t read it anyway).

The key point is that you should never assume that people will read this part of the message. If they read the top of the message and don’t think the message applies to them, they won’t get this far.

Even if they do realize they need to take action, most of the time they’ll only read the “Action Required:” section and take action. Remember, scanning…not reading.

One Tip

I find that the simplest way to start to use this format is to first write out the big, long, complicated email you are used to creating. Often this is the simplest and fastest way for you to get the idea out of your head and onto paper.

Then, extract the key pieces of information and add them to the top of the message in the right sections. Then take the big, long, complicated email you wrote and just paste it into the “Background” section.

Parting Thoughts

I hope you find this template useful. Please feel free to use, modify and improve upon it. My only request is that if you do use it and find it beneficial, please let me know.

Thanks and happy communicating!