This Simple Rule Will Change the Way You Write Emails

November 27, 2017

Email can be a troublesome communication tool, because it’s easy for people to misread tone and intent. People are quick to get their backs up and take things the wrong way.

The hazards of email is a topic that came up often during my conversations with more than 500 CEOs over the last decade. Many of them shared smart insights about how the meaning of straightforward emails can get “lost in translation,” and how email taps into a part of our brain that always wants to have the last word when disagreements arise.

A simple strategy can help avoid some of these miscommunications, and it comes from Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of the board of Loews Corporation and chairman and CEO of its Loews Hotels subsidiary. In our “Corner Office” interview, he shared a suggestion he heard early on in his career that changed his writing style ever since.

Never start sentences with the word “I,” Mr. Tisch said. The benefit of that approach is that it pushes you to frame your point in the context of the other person, rather than yourself.

“My boss told me that whenever you’re writing a letter — and now it applies to emails today — never start a paragraph with the word “I,” because that immediately sends a message that you are more important than the person that you’re communicating with,” Mr. Tisch told me.

“It has stayed with me now for 35 years, and it’s a message that I always deliver. When you start to train your thinking about how to not use ‘I,’ you become a better writer, and it teaches you how to really think through an issue. What are you really trying to say and how are you going to say it without starting the paragraph with the word ‘I'”?

This rule may strike some people as overly simplistic. After all, if you start an email with “I hope you’re well,” isn’t the focus on the other person? Well, yes. But in our busy lives, it’s hard to beat a smart rule like this that’s easy to remember. And why not give it a try for a while?

Visuals can also help us remember ideas like this, and that’s why I chose the photo of a compass to accompany this post. Keep it in mind when you’re writing emails — is your compass pointed at the other person, or is it pointed at yourself as the focus of your email?

The broader point, of course, is that this orientation shouldn’t be limited to emails. Bob Eckert, the former CEO of Mattel who is now with FFL Partners, shared a memorable story during our interview about how his father was never interested in talking about himself.

“When we knew the end was near, I’d go see him all the time. And he’d want to know: ‘Bobby, how’s it going? Enough about me. Tell me about you,'” Mr. Eckert recalled. “He was interested in other people. And my wife has always said about him and me that we are ‘other directed.’ Being other-directed has always worked for me.”

Hard to beat that as a deceptively simple framework: some people are self-directed, and some people are “other directed.” And being other-directed is a powerful approach in every aspect of life, not just in emails.

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

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