Monday, November 8, 2010

Tales from the crypt, um, email inbox

I know it's after Halloween, but I had to share a recent spooky occurrence that happened to me via email. I was looking for a set of PDFs of a project that was similar to one that was just in SD. I wanted to send this set of PDFs to my cost estimator so he would have a good idea of what this new project would be like (in terms of casework, finishes, mechanical and plumbing standards, etc.). I knew that a colleague of mine had worked on a similar project to mine, which we'll call the Winburn Building. I sent my colleague the following email:

Hi Xxxxx,

Are there PDFs of the drawings (CDs, as-builts, whatever) for the Winburn Building? I’d like to upload them to our FTP site to send the cost estimator for the Crestridge Building.

This was the response I got back:

Sure are


So I sent this:

Excellent! Where’s the best place in the project files drive to find those? I see [project number] and [different project number] under the [Winburn Building's Client Name] folder...would you recommend sending the PDFs in [long file path name and number] to my cost estimator for Crestridge? I want to give him something that’s as complete as we can get it for Winburn, and that looks like what I want but it also says “Initial Pricing Package” on the front sheet…?

And I got back this:

[project number] is what you should use

Good luck This is feeling really unhelpful and dare I say a little schmucky. So I finally wrote back:

Oh, derp! What I was trying to do is ask if you had CDs of Windburn [project number], or is the Initial Pricing as far as the project has gotten?

And I finally got back:

[project name and short path to the correct folder]

Try these… might be better

Now then, was that so painful? If you had sent me that three emails ago, we could have been done by now. Perhaps my colleague was annoyed because the folder, once he sent the link for it, was pretty obvious. But for some reason, I just had not been able to find it and was looking for direction from him. Furthermore, there were two project numbers that could have been the project I needed. Ah, but I promised you a spooky event, didn't I? Yes indeed, and here is the scary part...

...this colleague is a licensed architect with more years of experience than I have! AAAHHHHHGGH!!! [running away from the campfire]

Okay, okay, that was a little dramatic. But it's still a little scary--this architect (whose poor email skills I've written about before) sends emails to clients and consultants all the time, and some of the things he sends out on which I've been copied are downright horrifying. More than once, I've read his emails and thought "If I hadn't been in that same meeting, I'd have no idea what he was talking about right now."

Your consultants, clients, and colleagues all have jobs to do on a project, tasks that intersect with your tasks and that make the project run smoothly. Sometimes they need something from you, and sometimes you need something from them--fair enough. However, it's not fair to make them a) work hard to understand you and b) work hard to get what they need from you. Email is a communication medium that is rife with opportunity for misunderstanding, so a well-written email saves everyone a lot of time and energy (energy spent either figuring out what you want from someone, or energy spent getting furious with a misinterpreted comment).

Some basic tips for writing good project-related emails:
  1. Take your time. Email does make it easy to dash off a quick note to someone, but really take a moment to reread what you've read, or even read it aloud (a trick I learned from some of my English-major friends in grad school). This is good practice even with the smallest emails. Perhaps you want to send a layout of some outdoor mechanical equipment to your engineer, and you need him to confirm if the layout will work. You could just say, "Eddie, here's my pass at the mechanical yard. Will this work for you?" However, a little more thought makes this a much more useful email and can help them think through your request: "Eddie, here's my pass at a layout for the mechanical yard equipment. Do we have all the clearances correct around the equipment, and will these locations work for now as well as the Phase 2 buildout?" Also, composing your email with a little time allows you to prevent from sending out something with sentence fragments (where you began to type something, then changed your mind but forgot to erase the first half of the abandoned sentence).
  2. SpellCheck is your acquaintance, not your friend. There are plenty of words that pass SpellCheck because they really are words, but they're not the right word for your email. One of my English-major pals tends to accidentally start many emails with "Dear family and fiends..." Fortunately, he checks the email again (see tip #1 above) and catches it before it goes out. While most typos and grammatic snafus aren't that big of a deal (e.g., "form" instead of "from"), it does make it look like you're not paying attention.
  3. Ditch the slang and (most of) the jokes and funny references. Email is an medium in which it's easy to misinterpret what was typed, because many of us do dash off an email quickly in the same voice and words that we might say aloud. Since that written form is missing our tone of voice and inflection, a joke might come off as a snidey slap in the face. Also, you're working with people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ages, generations, cultures, etc. Slang doesn't always translate even amongst people who speak the same language. I think about a fellow grad student who was born in Spain and moved to the U.S. when he was ten. His parents hired a tutor to teach him English, so while my friend spoke impeccable European Spanish, his English was so perfect that he actually had slightly adopted the Brooklyn-inflected accent of his tutor. The only thing that would give him away as a naturalized citizen instead of native-born is that he didn't understand a lot of American childhood cultural references and older slang sayings, like "the early bird catches the worm".
  4. Always use a good, clear subject for the email. A good habit to develop with project-related emails is to first type the name of the project and then the primary topic or topics of the email. In my case above, I might use this as my email subject: "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Yard Layout." If my email had a variety of topics involving mechanical stuff, I might write "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Issues." (Notice I did not say "stuff"; I didn't go to grad school and pass the ARE to write emails with the word "stuff" in them like I was starring in Dude Where's My Car?.) A good clear subject line not only allows someone to quickly know what information you're looking for or problem you're trying to resolve, it also can help them (and you) search for the email later in their inbox.
  5. Make sure the point of your email is clear. Even if you have to write a bunch of introductory information, or perhaps you have to clearly spell out the three or four problems going on in a project, you want to be able to make the intent of the email clear. What do you want this email to do after the recipient(s) has/have read it? Do you want someone to make a decision? Do you want someone to get you a drawing? And if there are multiple recipients, is it clear which of them should be making the decision, getting you the drawing, etc.? One of my favorite sentence structures for being clear is this: "I want/need/would like __________ by __________ because __________." And that "because" is not an apology. but rather a courteous explanation of what's going on that requires that we do-this-by-this-time.
  6. And finally, when you get an email asking for something, either give the person what they need or ask for more information. It was pretty clear what I wanted in the email at the beginning of this post, and had my colleague given me the file path at that point instead of waiting for the third email, we could have been done. If my colleague was really busy and couldn't help me, at that moment, he could have emailed back that he was on a deadline and would get me a link later that morning, or he was on a deadline and I should ask So-and-So for more prompt help, or he could have said "here's the project number, and I'm pretty sure I have a folder in there called _____ that should have what you need." Taking your time with emails refers to reading them as well as writing them. What is this person looking for? What are they needing? Instead of just firing back a "here you go" when you're not sure, ask. It might even be helpful to call the person and talk through their request, then use a reply email to recap the discussion and give them what they have asked for (or explain why you can't do that at that time).

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