I Don't Like Bananas

September 30, 2019

Several years ago, when my daughter started school, my job was to pack her lunch. On the morning of her first day, I packed a PB&J, juice box, snack, and a banana. That evening when I inspected her lunch box, everything had been eaten, but the banana. Taking no note of the banana, I packed the next day’s lunch with another PB&J, juice box, snack and the same banana. Again, on the second evening, I discovered the lunch box empty, except for the banana. As you can guess, I packed the same lunch for the third day—with “the” banana. When I opened her lunch box on the third evening I found “the” banana with a drawing made with her best crayons. The drawing was of a banana and a caption that read: “I don’t like bananas.”

The take-away lesson from my young daughter? She chose a very effective method of communication. It was clear, concise, and right to the point. This led me to think about how I communicate—especially when it comes to communicating with project engineers and contractors about projects.

I thought about the means by which we all communicate, mostly: email. Email has become the most common form of communication between the client, architect, engineer, contractor, and subcontractor. The ability to compose efficient and effective email is critical—both in terms of productivity and responsiveness. With this, several things come to mind. Everyone’s time is valuable. We’ve all received long, ambiguous and rambling email. Ironically, many of us may have been guilty of writing inefficient email (I know I have). We know clear and effective communication leads to safer job sites, better service to clients, and increased profitability.

Below are a few ways I have learned to be more effective in email communication to a project engineer or contractor and increase the likelihood of getting the desired result.

• What’s the point?

Decide your purpose for creating the email. Is it intended to inform the recipient, ask a question, answer a question, or to participate in an open-ended discussion? Without a clear understanding of the purpose, emails tend to be disorganized and incoherent and yield undesired responses.

• Use and abuse the subject lines.

If the purpose can be stated clearly in the subject line, do it. Emails with subject lines like, “Jobsite meeting scheduled for Monday at 9:00 AM” leave no ambiguity as to intent or the desired result.

• Lists, lists, lists

Engineers tend to think in lists (present company included). Finish step one, then move to step two, etc. If you can create an email that has no paragraphs, just a list of action items, you just about guarantee that the email will get read and acted upon in a timely manner. If no action is required, say that. “No reply necessary.”

• Include desired outcome.

Most of the time, as engineers, we already know what we want. State your desired outcome in the email. If you get a response, you’ll have their alternative suggestion. If they don’t respond, you still have a plan. It is often quicker for the contractor or engineer to check a solution instead of developing one from scratch. When left to their own devices, the contractor or engineer may come up with a solution that is not the most desirable for you.

• Facts, the whole facts, and nothing but the facts.

Emails are not intended to be extended biographies or movie screenplays. We often feel compelled to describe all the history behind an issue and disclose all extenuating circumstances so that a contractor or project engineer can understand the whole picture. Most of this information is irrelevant. Just the facts.

• Use simple English.

Remember that contractors and engineers were not English majors in college. When you write in stilited language or use irrelevant technical lingo, it may be difficult to understand what your intention is. Write like you talk, using a conversational style.

• Font matters.

We are more likely to read an entire email written in a plain font, as opposed to one in a fancy curving script or one in all bold or capital letters. Keep text size consistent, and only underline or italicize words when it is absolutely necessary for emphasis.

• Minimize questions.

Ask questions that matter, and limit the number you ask. The more questions (especially open-ended ones) asked, the more likely your response will be delayed until all your questions are answered.

• Avoid replying.

Create a new email whenever possible. Keep the email to one printed page if possible. Previous email discussions can be accessed later if supporting information is required.

Communicating through email more effectively and efficiently can yield desired results quicker and more often.

So how effective was my daughter’s communication in achieving her desired result? No more bananas. Now, apples.

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