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  • Matt Brown

The Communication Illusion

“The single biggest problem in communication is the

illusion that it has taken place.”

(George Bernard Shaw)

Most of us need reminding regularly that communication is about what the other party receives and understands rather than just what we send. When we are communicating face to face we can at least see from the other person’s body language if we have created confusion, and on the phone there may be verbal clues, although of course neither of these mean we have achieved a shared understanding! However, if we stop and think about business communication as we enter the third decade of the 21st century how much of it is face to face or by telephone? In fact, recent studies ( ) show that Millennials are more comfortable with electronic communication than face to face, the future of business communication is going to be driven more and more by technology.

Research by Statista showed that in 2017 269 billion emails were sent (and received!) each day and this is predicted to rise to 333 billion by 2022, with over half the world’s population having access to email. Between 2014 and 2018 the average office worker received c.90 emails a day and sent around 40 (this also illustrates the amount of spam sent and mailing lists subscribed to).

Pause reading this article now and check your inbox – how many unread emails do you have in there? Now ask yourself (and be totally honest about this.):

  1. How many of those are you going to read (and I mean read, not skim)?

  2. What will influence you to read them? (probably who they are from and the subject line?)

  3. How many emails do you sent each day, and what percentage of them do you think are read?

In fact, research conducted by Mailchimp in 2018 showed that only 21% of emails are opened (this doesn’t mean that 79% are never read, don’t forget the preview pane in Outlook!) In May 2019 published an article looking at the 20 most important inventions of the last 30 years, and at number 6 was email and text messaging, and there is little doubt that the advent of these technologies has dramatically impacted on how we communicate at work, but it also begs the question has it improved communication or hindered it? I am sure I am not the only person who has fallen into the trap of sending an email and assuming that the message has been received, understood and acted upon.

One of the key functions of an effective leader is their ability to role model behaviours for their people, so as you enter the new decade now is a great opportunity to carry out a review of your communication style.

If you are getting frustrated by the number of emails that you receive each day, and feel that you are not being kept informed about things that you need to know about, then you should start by reading my previous blog ‘What sort of shadow do you cast?’

There is no doubt that I can improve my own email communication, and I have set myself a new year’s resolution to stop hiding behind email and pick up the phone and talk to people more, and I suggest that the following guidelines are used for every email you send:

  1. Would I say this to their face? How many times have you received an email that metaphorically jumps off the screen and punches you between the eyes, and then ends 😊? Also bear in mind that sarcasm, irony etc are hard to express when you are only using the written word, and you have no idea what type of day the recipient is having and what mood they are in. An email is an instant business letter, and should be written as such.

  2. Clear Heading – the subject line plays a crucial role in the ‘shall I read this’ decision, make your emails more likely to be read by helping the recipient know what it is about.

  3. Single Screen View – Over 50% of emails are now read on mobile devices ( Keep it short and people are more likely to read it as we tend to be too lazy to scroll down.

  4. Greeting – even if it is just ‘Hi’ it makes it more personal and therefore more likely to be read.

  5. Don’t use caps, bold, underline, colours etc. – they are the equivalent of shouting! (Colours are ok if you are adding an answer to a question)

  6. Single Topic – how do you file your emails? Most people have a logical system so make it easier for them by sticking to one topic per email. Also, it is easy for the reader to miss things in multiple topic emails.

  7. What is the recipient meant to do with the information/request? Use a simple system, if it is ‘To’ then they need to take action, if it is ‘CC’ then it is purely for information. Do not use CC to ‘cover your a….’!!

  8. Be very careful when you Forward an email – remember they can now see the entire conversation history. Also do you really need to Reply To All?

Using these simple rules for the emails that you have to send will, over a period of time, make your emails more likely to be read and acted upon, and will also impact on the emails that you receive as your team will also start to adopt some of these habits.

Finally, research published in the Daily Telegraph on 26th November 2019 showed that in the UK 64 million unnecessary emails are sent each day. If every one of us sent just one less unnecessary email each day this could result in a power saving which would reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 16,000 tonnes per year.

By constantly asking yourself

‘am I using the best method of communication, or the easiest?’

before you send an email you will not only improve your reputation, you will also help the planet!

If you would like to know more about this and other self-Leadership concepts or believe that you or your managers would benefit from training in this area please contact Develop Your People by email at:

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