Five Rules I Broke By Relying Too Much on E-mail

I would make a great doctor, because I am a lousy patient. I am better at examining other people’s problems than curing my own. Case in point, I have spouted off for years that a phone call will beat an e-mail every time. Whether it is a sales call, a customer service issue, or an internal conflict among staff members, a voice works better than text. Of course, it is easier to dispense that pill than swallow it myself.

My company has been trying to connect with local associations to promote our services. I first had a staff member reach out to a number of associations on my list. I admonished him not to take the lazy route of e-mailing. I was worried that, because he is a Millennial, he would shy away from person-to-person interaction. I explained to him that nothing sells like a voice. He reported each week about the difficulty of reaching people by phone and having to leave multiple voice mails and not hearing back from anyone. I eventually decided to take on the project myself. Since I’m a busy man, I thought I might reach a broader batch of prospects if I crafted a well-worded e-mail. “After all,” I thought, “if I create an e-mail, not only can I get it in front of more people in a shorter period of time, I will be able to choose just the right phrases to entice the reader to act.” It never dawned on me that all the excuses I wouldn’t accept from my staff member, I allowed for myself.

It should come as no surprise that the number of responses I got from my e-mail campaign equals the number of times I have won an argument with my wife. And my laziness didn’t stop there. Not long ago we had to have some company members step down from their roles in the organization and take a lesser position. After years of complaining about Generation Y kids have a tendency to break up with boyfriends/girlfriends by texting them, I made the decision to inform these staff members via e-mail. I had all the convenient excuses; I wanted to reach them as soon as possible and knew that an e-mail would reach them right away, I wanted to word the notice in just the right way, blah blah blah. So I broke up with them over e-mail. How Millennial of me. Later, while speaking to those staff members about the issue, they said that they were less affected by the decision itself than the fact that they were not given the courtesy of a face-to-face conversation. Sure enough, when the same thing had to be done with a different staff member, and my business partner and I met with him face-to-face, he ended the meeting by thanking us for taking the time to meet with him personally.

So let’s go down the list of rules I broke:

  1. The brain is wired to react to sound, not text. Reading can certainly elicit an emotional response, just look at the vitriol caused by Facebook posts, but text rarely inspires action. Our brains are wired to react to another human voice, which it is so difficult to say “no” to someone who makes a request, even if we intensely dislike the person.
  2. The risk of hearing “no” can be so great that we will create any excuse to avoid face-to-face conversation.
  3. Even though a good quality of a leader is the ability to delegate, you can’t delegate to e-mail. Never confuse delegating with making excuses.
  4. The old advice of leading by example can’t be overstated. I told the story before about a restaurant manager who saw a mess on the floor, walked right by it, and ordered an employee to clean it up. The employee didn’t use a cheap bus rag to wipe up the mess, he grabbed a handful of expensive bar napkins. If you show that, as a leader, you are above doing a workplace chore, don’t expect your staff to support larger initiatives.
  5. We all want tricks and shortcuts to success, but they just don’t exist. Now, before I get an inbox packed with complaints reminding me that sometimes there are benefits to text (the recipient prefers it, text provides an accurate record of an interaction, you can choose your words more carefully), ask yourself “Am I really applying these reasons because they fit the situation, or am I wimping out?” You may be able to word an e-mail or test more carefully, but a conversation that is full of bumps and bumbles is still better than a crisp text. In fact, voice is better precisely because it isn’t perfect. Humans have a healthy distrust of anything too neat and tidy. It reeks of over-preparedness.

The whole situation reminds me of a theatre director who was asked by his cast why they didn’t employ more multi-media in their performances. He said, “The only time we will use a TV screen is when the message cannot be better delivered live.” As such, the TVs were almost never used. Gotta go, I have to take my own prescription and make some phone calls.


Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at or

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