Three Small Ways to Write Emails that People Act Upon

Three Small Ways to write Emails that People act on.

If you want people to reply to your emails with more speed, then use the following pointers in your messages and get rid of those ‘chase up’ flags!

1. Write Specific Titles

Make sure the title matches the subject and is specific. This email below is not specific enough:

Stella may have 3 meetings so when she sees Jock’s email, she may be confused as to which one Jock’s referring.

Now compare this email heading, where Jock’s been very specific about the subject so Stella will instantly know which meeting is being mentioned.

2. Keep Subjects Separate

It’s much easier to respond to subjects when you send each one in a separate email.

If you combine subjects in emails, there’s more risk of the them being ‘buried’ and ignored. To mitigate this, and to make it easier for you to keep track of where you are with each issue, allot a separate email to different subjects.

3. Give the right amount of information

One of the reasons why no one replies to your email, is information overload. On the other hand, too little information and the receiver can be left in the dark.

Some people want detail, some just the gist. The safest bet here is to:

  1. keep your points succinct and short;
  2. ensure your points are numbered and well space, makiing it easier for the eye to scan information;

  3. highlight important points with a space above and below in addition to emphasising with the use of a different colour.


If you need to provide extra information, you can:

  • offer a meeting/call
  • provide an attachment, giving those who want to ‘drill down’ the opportunity to get the detail.

Applying these tips will help you to get from this…

to this:

…without pulling teeth!

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When Advice is Not the Answer

Don't give me your advice!

Don’t give me your advice!

A woman and man are talking after work. She complains about day, he gives advice and she gets angry, exclaiming that he’s not listening or doesn’t understand her.

Men are left bewildered, “Well why talk about a problem if you don’t want my advice?”

Now, here’s the secret code of conduct:

Women know how to deal with the problem, most of the time. That’s not why they’re talking – it’s just to emotionally let off steam.

Cutting in with advice may be repelled as it seems patronising, unless you show understanding before you do.

Having said this, I cut in on the complaining with a range of males  by proffering (unasked for) advice.

My extensive research yielded anger and frustration in 95% of cases.

The others don’t count as they never listen anyway. So there we are. It’s not just a man/woman thing. It’s more general than that.

So I switched to empathy and one of either two outcomes occurred:

  1. my research subjects changed the subject.  I even shut a barrister up.  Amazing.
  2. if empathy didn’t stop the conversation, it continued it.  When that happens, read on…

How to give advice

Ask – permission “May I suggest something?”
Tell – give the advice
Ask – approval “Is that helpful?”, “Is there anything in there, that you can use?”

You can also use stories so the conversation will look like this:

  • Ask

“Can I tell you about something that happened to…You may relate to this…”

note: you’re not assuming that the story is anything like their situation and you’re covering yourself.  It’s like those situations when people say ‘The exact same thing happened to me!’ and then they tell as tale that bears no relation to your own experience.

  • Tell – story
  • Ask – as before.

How would you apply this advice (!) specifically to your client and colleague relationships?


Is your language holding you back?

A few years ago, I was coaching a senior Banker in creative thinking.  I had some music on my laptop and turned my back on him to switch the sound off. Before doing so, I said ‘sorry’, at which point he asked, “Why are you saying ‘sorry’?”

“Because it’s rude not to, when you’re turning your back on someone,” I replied,

“But you didn’t do anything wrong. Say ‘excuse me’. Why apologise?”

I nodded in agreement whilst pondering on his pedantic nature.

Firstly, he was in Banking, which has a very specific culture. Secondly as a South African male in Banking he was even more direct than many of the people I know in the same sector in the UK. When I was thinking ‘excuse me’, he heard ‘grovel, grovel, please forgive me.’


The Language Trap

Knowing how our language is interpreted in ways that we hadn’t intended was the subject of a study by Dr. Judith Baxter, Senior Lecturer of Applied Linguistics at Aston University.

She observed and recorded board meetings in 7 FTSE 500 businesses and analysed how women who have reached the top communicate and interact with their colleagues.

What she discovered is a key skill that women need to learn if they are to survive and be successful at the top. However, it’s not only women. I’ve sat in on a few meetings where men have also fallen into the same verbal trap.

The trap, as Dr. Baxter defines it, is called ‘double-voiced discourse’ (DvD). Women tend to use this more when they’re in a meeting dominated by men, mainly at a more senior level.

DvD is a type of linguistic second guessing, where possible negative reactions to colleagues are dealt with by using pre-emptive self put-downs. The message the listener gets is that of insecurity.

For example, Dr. Baxter noted that in one example a senior woman said, ‘I realise I’m talking too much, I better shut up’. She had only spoken twice in the board meeting.

Some examples of double-voiced discourse taken from the data are as follows:

  • To pre-empt criticism about a new policy, a senior woman to her team:
    ‘I know what’s going through your minds, so let me just say what I think first…’
  • In case she didn’t hear an important point in the discussion:
    ‘Correct me if I have missed something here, but it seems to me that…’
  • To soften a forceful statement if a senior women feels she is seen as threatening:
    ‘At the risk of sounding assertive, I just think…..’
  • To heighten authority if a woman feels she is not being taken seriously:
    ‘OK, guys, give me a break, you’re not listening to my point…’

I’ve found that one has to also be careful with the use of words such as ‘actually’ as in:

‘Actually, I have something to add to this’

Some may interpret that as:

‘Ooh, what a surprise! I can, in fact, add to this point!’

There’s also ‘just’ as in:

‘I just need to ask you whether we’re meeting tomorrow’

That sentence with the word ‘just’ and either softens it or can come across as almost apologetic.

‘So sorry to take up your time but can I ask, er…is it OK…to know what time we’re meeting tomorrow.’

This self-deprecating language can express a charming humility. On the other hand, there are certain national cultures and working contexts in which such forms of expression can hold you back.

(By the way, thanks to Kim Catcheside from Champollion for passing me her press release from Dr Baxter’s research.)

What specific language do YOU observe puts the speaker down?

10 ways to keep ideas flowing

treeBrainstorming conversations can topple into idea-crushing ones.  It’s easy to hear yourself saying, “No, I don’t like that idea.  I’ve got a better one.”  or “That’s a bit stupid. I can’t see it working.”

You’ll end up talking to yourself because no-one will want to offer anything.

However, you can make suggestions or steer a conversation to a different angle without knocking someone’s offer to the ground.

Theatre improvisation techniques are a great way to develop this skill but very few companies get the opportunity to experience these.  I won’t deny you, though, as you can take the fundamental concept of improvisation – accepting ‘an offer’ or an idea and then making it into something else – with these 10 phrases:


1.    How about….?
2.   What if we were to…?
  What are our alternatives…
4.   What about…?

6.   One way out would be to…
   Another way of doing that would be…
8.   Wouldn’t it be a good idea to…?
   How would it be if….?
Maybe we could try to explore this another way.


Pay attention to your body language and intonation, making sure that your non-verbal communication isn’t shouting: “What ARE you thinking?!”  Look and sound interested.

So not this:                                                           But this:

sneering facelistening body language

What Beyonce knows about teleconferencing!

Doing a virtual presentation can feel like talking to air.  Here’s a situation you may recognise….

The Situation: most of the participants will not be in the room and some won’t see you. All, except two are in different continents.

The Challenge: to include everyone, ensure they maintain their attention and, no matter which medium they are using, they are involved with the whole conversation.

The solution: Do what so many others do: talk at the ones you can see and ignore the ones you can’t.

Result: Total waste of money and time.

OR use a few tips from a treasure chest of them, that I use in workshops on Knock Out Presentations and Pitches.

In preparation of the call:

1.  Ensure everyone has a list of who is who including names, roles and locations and contact information so that people can reach each other for further information after the call, if they need to.

2.  Decide who’s going to do what: facilitate, who will lead each section

3.  Have the participants meet up 30 minutes before the scheduled time to test the IT. In each room, where there’s a video conference, have one person responsible for making the IT work and a back up plan if it doesn’t.

4.  Consider participant availability just as you would for any other meeting.

5.  Take into account time zones when scheduling – the Malaysians may be less participative when you speak to them from London at 2:00pm GMT as they’re beating for the door – it’s 7pm but the New Yorkers have had they’re coffee and they’re all go. This will mean you’ll probably need to stimulate more participation from your eastern callers and just when you’re on your post-lunch slump, you’ll need to keep the energy up for those to the West of you.

6.  Communicate local time or how to calculate local time when sending meeting announcement.

7. Distribute supporting documents/files well before the call start.

8. Inform participants if they have to have a file or website open on their computer desktop.

9. Record the call. For those who can’t make the meeting simply record the call and share the audio file.

During the call: Keep it personal (Beyonce’s already said it…’Say ma name, say ma name…)

1.  Review and, if needed, adjust agenda.

2. Find out if there are any individual time constraints (“I have to leave early”) and adjust accordingly. This is particularly important if you need the input or participation of the person leaving early to achieve the goals of the call.

3. Have a round of greetings: this way you’ll start to familiarise yourself with whose name belongs to which voice.

4. If someone’s joining the call later, the earlier arrivals need to introduce themselves to this latter one. If that was you joining later you’d want to know who you’re talking to.

5. ‘Say my name, say my name’, as the song goes…actually, say your own name before you speak. saymynameOne of the reasons why your audience may go silent when you ask their thoughts on what you’ve just said, is that they’re not sure who the voice belongs to and they don’t want to wrong foot themselves. The best way to achieve this habit in a teleconference is just to announce it as ‘How about if were to say our names before we speak each time, just to distinguish the speaker?’ Leaving it to tacit agreement in some groups is like trying to travel to the moon on a scooter: it just won’t happen.

6. Help less engaged people become more involved in the call e.g. use phrases like:

a) How do you see this, xxxx?

b) What’s your experience of this, xxxx?

c) Does this sound like what you’re looking for, xxxx?

d) Would you like to add anything to this, xxxx?

7. Be enthusiastic and use a tone appropriate to the group. The first impression is important.

8. Vary voice tone – avoid monotone presentation.

After the Call: Have a plan that leads to action (not another meeting)

1. For Action steps, remember to state who does what by when.

With virtual calls so much the norm in companies these days, using the format above will mean that you have more productive use of time, better decision making and more possibility to use other virtual interactive tools effectively as your participants will already feel more involved in the process.

What irritates you in virtual conferencing?  Let us know below…

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If you think you’re better with face to face training, Switch Vision can run courses for you – whether as a one to one or in a group. Communication and Transformational Creativity for Technical Experts combining the best in Performance and Business.   Call me to discuss your needs on +44 (0) 20 7183 4300 or drop me a line here



Could you change your mind, please?

“These conversation are driving me nuts:  we ‘ve got major business opportunities in France and Turkey and no-there to to get it going.  I speak Spanish, Turkish and French but my boss only wants to send me to Spanish speaking countries,” remarked Liz.

“What’s his reasoning?” I enquire.

“Wants me to concentrate on Spain. That’s as much as I get from him.  I wouldn’t care, but all the other projects are now being managed by someone else.  It’s just so frustrating.  Boring, in fact.  There’s no sense in it.”

So how can Liz break through such resistance?

According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, resistance is the primary reason that changes fail in organizations. In a similar survey conducted by Deloitte Consulting, 80 percent of the CIOs surveyed said that resistance was the main reason why technology projects failed. Not lack of skill or resources, but that soft touchy-feely human reaction of resistance.                                                  
Is meeting resistance with resistance the answer?

Is meeting resistance with resistance the answer?

This resistance can be grouped into three levels:

Level 1 – Based on Lack of Information

This is low-grade resistance where there is no hidden agenda. People are opposed to the idea for any number of reasons: lack of information, disagreement with the idea itself, lack of exposure, or confusion.

What this could mean for Liz: Maybe Liz’s boss doesn’t have enough information about the opportunities in these other countries.

Level 2 – Based on personality and vested interests

Level 2 is an emotional reaction to the change. Even given the right information, vested interests or dislike can be difficult to shift.

What this could mean for Liz: does the boss feel that Liz’s progression could undermine him? Does he just dislike her and would rather give the opportunity to someone else?

Level 3 – Based on Environmental issues

This level concerns external factors such as the economy, the company structure, process, climate.

What this could mean for Liz: the economy doesn’t bode well for development in certain areas. 

None of these levels are insurmountable.  Not even Level 2, where there’s a personality clash.  There are four channels of influence that work independently or in combinations.  These channels are:

1. Direct Influence:

You have direct contact with the person you’re influencing

What to be aware of: how assertive you have to be will depend on the characters and contexts involved. Body language, facial expression, intonation and verbal language will have an impact on how your message is received.

2. Indirect Influence:

Here, the influence is through someone else.

What to be aware of:  who has the ear and trust of the person you’re influencing? Can you trust them? You don’t want your messages twisted by anyone else.

3. Syndicated Influence:

This is similar to Indirect Influence, except you have different people/groups affecting the decisions.

Ensure they’re all giving the same message, even if it’s in different ways.

4. Collaborative Influence:

You team up with others to get the message from different angles.

Again, trust is an issue here. You want to make sure the person with whom you’re collaborating is genuinely supportive of your message.  If they’ve a different approach from you, that could well work in your favour: the different packaging of the point could cause the penny to drop.

5. Remote Influence:

You need do nothing.  The situation changes because of external factors that impact on the actions of others.

The proof of the pudding is in the…seeing. When environmental changes become obvious, you need say nothing.  The press, the demise or rise of a project, the fact that a product is flying off the shelves are all tools for influence.  

Don’t expect influence to be an axe through the wall though: it could happen in a minute or over days, weeks, months or years (political movements being an example, or getting someone to make up their mind…)

Comment below to let me know or email me at

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Just LISTEN, will you!?


 Just LISTEN, will you!?

There are times when you think you’re better off talking to a brick wall and times when…actually you are e.g. teleconferences where the ‘listeners’ have pressed the mute button.

Whether it’s at work or in other areas of your life, wouldn’t it be great to be able to use a few simple techniques that:

1.  can pour water on the fire of potential conflict,
2.  help you to discover hidden agendas
3.  or, simply, to get people on your side

Verbal Techniques for Effective Listening

1. Empathy

Although we all empathise at least sometimes, some show empathy more naturally than others and will tend to vocalise it. This is particularly important on the telephone but is also vital in face-to-face conversations as it builds rapport.


  • You encourage the person to disclose more information!
  • People feel understood


  1. That’s (interesting)…..
  2. How (dangerous)!
  3. What (a pain)!
  4. I can see how that could make things difficult/dangerous/ Yes, that’s how I see it/feel
  5. It sounds like that to me too

2. Reflect Back


  • Mitigates the chance of conflict based on misunderstanding
  • Clarifies statements and a stance on an expressed opinion
  • Helps the speaker to formulate their intentions
  • Buys you time before reacting (helping you to control your own emotions)
  • Reassures the speaker that you’ve understood them
  • Aids memory through repetition of details


  1. Let me see if I understand this correctly…
  2. If I can just go back a little
  3. Let’s step back for a moment…
  4. To recap…
  5. What I got from that was…
  6. Would it be correct to say…

3. Vocalise


  • Buys you time before reacting
  • Encourages the speaker to continue
  • Shows empathy through intonation


  1. ‘uh’, ‘ah’, ‘umm’ etc.

4. Pausing

Get comfortable with pauses! Nodding, vocalising and your facial expressions can fill a pause as can writing if you’re sitting at a table. Looking away in thought, can take away any intensity during the silence and give the impression that what has been said is worth considering.

Benefits: helps reflection on what’s been said provides time for the listener to formulate a response allows statements to sink in makes you look more confident

If you want to get someone to stop talking, listen to them!

This may seem a little counter-productive but I shall bite the bullet and put in print what I’ve been saying in my Management and Communication workshops for years….

There’s a gender difference in how we listen.

Men will tend to want to ‘fix’ a problem and give advice. A woman will want to tell the ‘story’ because it feels better. Cut in too quickly with your ‘fix it or shut it’ approach and you’re dinner. If you want to move the conversation on and away, just show some empathy. I’m not saying men aren’t empathetic but it’s a matter of showing empathy, partly through matching body language and vocal tone, but also through a verbal indication that you understand (see above). Often women know the solution: they just want to feel that they’ve been understood. Believe me, knowing this can make or break a relationship! (P.S. The body language is different as well e.g. men use less head movements such as nodding, when listening and this is particularly noticeable the higher up the ladder you go so watch out for this one!).

And here’s the biology behind it…

Men have twice as much serotonin as women, whereas women have twice as much dopamine as men. Hence, when a man tumbles through the door after a long day, he may well feel happy and relaxed (serotonin) but tired, unfocussed and uninterested (lack of dopamine).

Women on the other hand, may trudge glumly through the house (lack of serotonin) but focussed and interested enough to complete tasks and chores.

So when a man doesn’t feel like doing the washing up he can blame his Dopamine Depletion. When a woman wants to have a good ‘ole moan and grumble, it’s our Divine Right.

This is either an argument for gay marriage or the use of Empathy. Take your pick…


Shooting the Messenger

shooting the messengerBullets in the Messenger

There you are, delivering a message on behalf of your line manager to another and as you’re relaying the information, it becomes clear to you and your listener that you haven’t a clue what you’re saying. So you either ramble, or reveal too much, potentially and unwittingly stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Is this your fault? Not entirely. Often the reason you’re in this situation in the first place is because you have been given any one of the following:


  1. abstract information;
  2. too much information;
  3. a dense message too quickly.

Overcoming the obstacles:

1. Ask Probing Questions: use ‘bums on seats’ (see below for a rough imitation of what many bums on a seat would look like): Who, What, When Why and Where are all sitting on How:

A note about ‘Why?
: ‘ If you ask ‘Why are we doing this?’, the answer may be dismissive or defensive. Instead ask, “What’s the reasoning behind this?’



‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘When’, ‘Where’ and ‘Why’ sitting on ‘How’

2. Feel free to interrupt assertively to clarify information: impatient tapping and rolling eyes will go down like a crate of beer at a teetotalers party.

3. Remember that the questions you ask are helping the Source (the person on behalf of whom you’re delivering the message) to define their message.

4. If you need time to think about the message before relaying it, take that time, rather than rushing to deliver it. If you don’t want to go back to The Source, ask someone else for missing pieces. Although dropping The Source a quick line so you can give the right message shouldn’t have you shot to pieces…. Know someone who’d find this useful? Feel free to forward it….

5. Take notes if you have to.

6. Be politically savvy. A great deal of people can’t be bothered with politics at work. Others thrive on it. Either way, it’s there. Do you need to report everything you’ve been told? You really don’t want to be caught in a maelstrom for spilling too many beans.

7. Lastly, the messenger may be given information in a tone that may sound impatient or aggressive. Tell yourself: ‘This is their impatience with the situation, not with me’; ‘I am instrumental in solving this’ ‘It is, therefore, necessary for me to clarify the message in order to deal with this situation.’ Relaying information succinctly and clearly makes you look authoritative and in control.

What’s the most difficult message YOU’VE had to give on behalf of someone else and how did you deal with it (or not!)?

We’d love to know…comment here or email me at

Words that flick the Turn Off Switch

During meetings, whether they’re one-to-one or group gatherings, there are certain words or phrases that make you want to switch off.

If you want to keep your audience switched ON, here are the words/phrases to avoid

1. ‘Presentation’
Unless you’re talking about, say, how to do a presentation, the word ‘presentation’ as in “In this presentation, I shall tell you about…” is a bit of a dampener. Your audience will be preparing themselves for being talked at and bombarded with slides.

2. ‘I’m going to sell you…’
Good selling makes the customer feel like they’ve bought, not that they’ve been sold too. You will rarely think you’ve bought because of a selling technique but of your perceived choice to buy.

3.  ‘I’m going to convince you’
As soon as you say that, your audience is already thinking, ‘No, you’re not!’ Anyway, what convincing do you have to do? Your case should be self-evident or, at least, your belief should shine through.

4. ‘hopefully’
As in, ‘Hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll realise how little these changes will trouble you.’ So, you’re living in hope? Giving the impression of being convinced and convincing is a vital ingredient to winning your audience over. So, drop the ‘hopefully’: it sounds like you’ve got your fingers crossed behind your back!

5. Things/stuff/nice/cool
Even if you are presenting to an audience who have their jeans around their bum cheeks, articulacy is always admired. Other words for ‘things’, for example, can be ‘facets’, ‘elements’, ‘possessions’. ‘Cool’ can be ‘smart’, ‘impressive’, ‘sleek’ or ‘fresh and clean-looking’. Don’t get me started with ‘stuff’ and ‘nice’….just find one of thousands of words that can replace these. (There’s 600,00 words in English so you’ve plenty to choose from…)

6. ‘Myself’ and ‘Yourself’ etc
You use ‘myself’ if: you wash yourself; you go by yourself; you do the work yourself. This is called the ‘reflexive pronoun’.

You do not use it here:
A: How are you?
B: Fine. And yourself?Actually, it’s ‘And you?’

This over-politeness in the English language is a recent tick of the tongue and has manifested in the last decade. Not only is it grammatically wrong but results in stilted, non-conversational language and is on a par with other annoying phrases such as:

7.   ‘Going forward’
Where? Into a black hole?

8.  ‘Thinking out the box’
Usually said by the most ‘in-the-box’ people

9.  Pushing the envelope
Does this mean taking risks? Making the work more challenging? Improving skills? It’s too unspecific to have any real meaning.

10.   ‘But’
I’m not saying that you have to avoid this but…..I was in a meeting and we were introduced to a new manager after a calamitous takeover. The room was bristling with dissatisfaction. He stood up (in a corner) and introduced himself, adding ‘I’m very understanding and I’m here if you need to talk but…(cue: guffaw from the audience)…but if anyone takes the mickey, there’ll be trouble.’ cue: heckles. Could this not have been reworded to ‘…of course, everyone has limits and I know that as a conscientious team, you won’t breach them.’? Use the word ‘but’ judiciously because it tends to weigh more on what comes after it than before in certain situations.

A presentation is a dialogue with one person speaking – at least, most of the time. Just like in a conversation, you need to be aware of the tone of your words, and, as in a conversation, give equal value to sounding natural and articulate (if you need to choose between those two, opt for the second one – just because you can!)

Let me tell you a story!

How to Spin a Good Yarn

Ever tried to get someone to change their beliefs or behaviour?  Often, the more we try, the more frustrating it can be.  This is where stories can be so effective as they depersonalise the personal: meaning and consequence ring out with a well chosen anecodote. You can pluck into a story with a pitch, presentation or when giving an appraisal.  In fact, stories generally enrich communication.

To come up with a tale to tell that strikes a chord, firstly, think why you’re telling your tale.   Here are some reasons:

If you’re thinking “Nope, still got no stories related to any of these!”   Then, just steal them: attribute them to someone else (and be careful to change details if you need to keep confidentiality).

Stephen Denning, author of the ‘The Springboard: How storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organisations’, told a short and powerful anecdote as Head of Knowledge Management at the World Bank.   He’d been banging his head up against a brick wall, trying to influence the spread of knowledge and know-how of the World Bank to create global change.   It’s only when he dumped the data, pie charts and graphs to tell a short personal story about a health worker in Kamana, Zambia that he started to create the change he needed in The World Bank.  The health worker was struggling to find a solution for treating malaria.   In this tiny and remote rural town the health worker logged on to the website of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and found an answer.

‘This true story happened, not, as if in a fantasy, in 2015, but in June 1995…..but the most striking aspect of this picture is this: [The World Bank] doesn’t have its know-how and expertise organised so that someone like the health worker in Zambia can have access to it.   But just imagine if it did!’

And all the hard facts and PowerPoint pie charts couldn’t beat the impact of that tale that sparked the beginning of the journey into global knowledge management in the World Bank. And that’s the power of a good yarn


Want to comment on something?  Feel free to say what you think below…