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To Email Or Not To Email, That Is The Question

By Broadway Stage Management Symposium

 

Email is so easy.  It’s a great tool to speed communication and distribute information.  We can send the exact same info to numerous people at the same time, have records of our communications, read and reply from anywhere, anytime.

However, it’s almost too easy.  Our inboxes get flooded and we get buried under hundreds of emails competing for our attention and needing a response. We write in truncated words without full sentences, reply while in transit or multitasking and all this can actually result in worse communication instead of better.

As stage managers, communication is what we do. Therefore, it’s important to know when email is the best tool or if a phone call would actually be the better course of action. Below are six items to consider before deciding if an email or phone call is the best course.

1. Tone can be easily lost or misinterpreted in an email.

The rise and fall of someone’s voice and the manner in which they speak conveys information that cannot be received in an email. The importance of the tone cannot be understated because the intention of an email can easily be misread when you don’t have access to a person’s tone of voice.  This can result in misinterpretations and misunderstandings which can then cause bigger issues. Therefore, clarity is of great importance when composing an email.  Haven’t you ever written an email that was taken in a totally different way than you meant it?

Psychology Today references research by a UCLA professor, Albert Mehrabian, in which he found that “7 percent of a message was derived from the words, 38 percent from the intonation, and 55 percent from the facial expression or body language. In other words, the vast majority of communication is not carried by our words alone.”

So when you are sending an email, you are severely limiting your ability to effectively communicate.  You have speed, but not clarity.

For a recent project, an email thread with the director and general manager about the rehearsal schedule resulted in over 10 emails back and forth without a final resolution. So finally, I called a digital cease fire and suggested we meet in person to discuss.  In one 15 minute conversation we solved the schedule problem and also solved other issues we hadn’t even identified yet.  In short, the “in person” interaction was much, much more clear and productive than all the emails.

2. Emails can provoke bigger reactions than in conversations.

The digital form makes it easier to say something that one might not say in person. Without that other person in front of you, a certain filter is removed.  There is no “other” to keep us in “check.” Haven’t you ever read an upsetting email and started yelling at the computer screen, just to fire off a quick and angry response.  Best to slow down before you hit that send button!

Before reacting to an email. take some time to digest it and calm down a bit if needed. Remember point #1, you can’t read tone of voice or body language in an email. So sometimes it’s best not to respond immediately, even though you have the ability to do that.  Devices like sarcasm, irony, and hyperbole do not tend to be clear in emails either. Before hitting send on any important email, re-read your email to make sure it reads as intended, with a calm clear head. Sometimes that means leaving it alone for a few minutes and that’s okay.  Just because email is practically instantaneous, doesn’t mean you always have to react that way.

2. Email can prolong resolutions.  

Messages zip back and forth, response time can vary from minutes to hours to days and it gets more and more difficult to finally get to a solution or decision.   So even when speed is important, email, although convenient, may not be the most efficient. Time can actually be lost writing and reading and writing email after email after email on the same subject. Then in the middle of the exchange, that email get buried by a dozen more and forgotten until you pick the thread up next week.

My friends and I tried to plan a get together and after a dozen emails over two weeks, I finally had to pick up the phone and call. With all our conflicting calendars, it’s so much simpler to have a conversation!  This day, no, that day, no, maybe this day?  Yes.  That simple exchange could’ve been three emails over three hours or just a one minute conversation.  That’s why I like to review any complicated prop, costume or set notes with a phone call instead of just emailed in the report, too.  Same idea. Questions arise, questions answered and then on to solutions instead of staring at screens typing.

4. Slow replies or no replies create anxiety.

Sometimes, it’s not even the reply, but the lack of a reply that causes concern. In the digital age, when we are used to instantaneous communications, a delay or a non reply can cause consternation. Did they get my email? Why aren’t they responding? Waiting for responses can induce anxiety and cause frustrations, which does not help communications. The information in an email can also change or shift or become irrelevant, while waiting for a response. Drowning in emails? Send a quick reply, “got your email and will reply as soon as possible.” That can alleviate the concern that the email may not have been received.

I always say, technology is great when it works, but it is fallible too.  Anyone ever heard the excuse, “Uh, I didn’t see the email” or “Never got that email.” That is why on critical issues, I ask for a quick reply to confirm receipt.  I’ll also explain to the cast before rehearsals begin that I will always email the schedule by a certain time and if you don’t receive it, please reach out to me.  This way, they become responsible and can’t use, those excuses.

On a recent project, before rehearsals began, I sent an email to the entire cast to introduce myself and distribute important information (dates, location, call times, etc…).  This is an efficient use of time and insures that the everyone receives the exact same info. I also asked for a reply to confirm they received the info. I had three cast members not respond after three days.  So it was time to pick up the phone.  Two of them had received it, but not read it close enough and the other hadn’t even seen it yet.  If I just relied on email, at least one cast member would’ve had no idea what day rehearsal was starting or where it was.

5. Emails are great for communications, but not relationship building.

All those emails get information out quickly and efficiently, but it doesn’t build real and solid relationships.  For that to happen you need to talk to a person, on the phone or in person.  If you are networking and trying to make a connection with a new person, a few email exchanges will not be nearly as affective as a phone call or a face to face meeting.

We are in a people business and as great as LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networks are, we cannot replace the real life connections.  They are our foundation.

A young stage manager emailed me recently to get together and meet for coffee.  My schedule is swamped that I wasn’t able to make a plan in the near future.  She was smart and in her email said that she appreciated my time and will wait until I’m available to meet in person.  That made a great impression on me.  She understood the importance of face to face meeting and that some emails back and forth couldn’t substitute for that.

In addition, the bcc option in email can alienate the exact people you are trying to build relationships with. I’ve received networking emails from stage managers looking for work. Then when I look at the TO: field, I notice that I’ve been bcc’d.  This is very impersonal.  You don’t want to bcc or cc a whole list of people, when you are trying to build relationships. Keep it personal, write an individual email to each person you are reaching out to. This makes people feel valued and appreciated, not just a stepping stone. Put a little more effort into it and address networking emails personally.

6. Reply all or not to reply all? To bcc or not bcc?

These are important questions.  Are you on an email with 20 other people?  Do they all need to hear your response or just the sender? Always be concerned, as you don’t want to add to the digital clutter or drop someone who needs the information.

Then there is the worse case scenario, when you intend to send a smart aleck response to just the sender and instead send it to everyone.  I’ve heard of this happening and it can be quite embarrassing.  It may be an urban myth, but someone once accidentally replied all to an industry wide email saying negative things about a colleague. Needless to say, this did not help their standing in the community. So check your default settings and check exactly who the email is going to before hitting that send button.

Also, when starting a thread to many recipients, think about it in advance.  Does everyone need to know who is receiving the email? What do you do for rehearsal & performance reports?  It’s always best bcc the distribution lists so replies only go to you, the stage manager and not to the entire distribution list.

As a stage manager, we need to know how to best utilize all our available tools to effectively lead our companies. Facilitating communication is a key part of our job, so by acknowledging the challenges of email, and taking an extra moment to consider the above, we can avoid some of the dangers and miscommunications that can arise.

We work in a people business, so as wonderful as email is remember you have other options… phone calls, face to face meetings, skype, google hangouts, etc… so when your third email isn’t getting a reply or you aren’t sure what is meant by someone’s email to you, feel free to dial ‘em up and have a conversation.

For more reference on digital vs. live communications, check out this article.

Published in cooperation with the Broadway Stage Management Symposium
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