It's all about setting expectations. Recently, a friend slid me a page out of a course book from a seminar called "Practical Leader," which...

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It’s all about setting expectations.

Recently, a friend slid me a page out of a course book from a seminar called “Practical Leader,” which outlined several ways to tell your e-mail correspondents what they need to do to solicit a response when they send a message. These suggestions were so on target — pure common sense — I had to check to make sure that I hadn’t written them.

The process, designed by consultant Steve Trautman, suggests something called “handshake e-mail.” That is, letting people know what buttons they need to push to get a favorable response. Or at least a response. The highlights:

• Only put someone’s name in the “To” line if that person needs to read the mail. Discretionary recipients should land in the “cc:” line.

• Be specific and succinct in the subject line. Avoid cute or vague sayings, or nebulous words such as “important.” But settle on a trigger word — such as “action” — to suggest the recipient needs to do something.

• Use the first two lines of the message to outline those expectations. Use bullet points, and keep the whole message down to one screen or less.

In Trautman’s world, those who follow these directions will get one of three responses: Yes, I will do this. No, I will not. Or I will do this but not exactly as requested. Your electronic pressure points will differ, but it’s essential to set these expectations.

“This is my vision, but you will probably adapt your own,” Trautman said. “Some people might find the word ‘action’ too annoying, so you may want to select another term. In many cases these parameters would never occur to someone. If you can articulate them then people will give you what you want.”

He said such suggestions should be made tactfully, and in person. Sending an e-mail increases the chances that you look pompous or pushy. And asking colleagues what they think is important in accomplishing this goal.

“Colleague” is an important part of the equation. A boss can mandate behavior and offer few choices. But when it comes from a peer (Trautman calls his technique “peer mentoring”) it can develop organically. And your colleague might add a touch that you missed.

“You just let people know how they will get the best response from you,” he said. “In many cases that’s all the motivation they will need.”

While a boss or a colleague has the right to suggest communication refinements, personal communication is a different story. Here, wacky subject lines and unspecific rambling messages are part of the program. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily out of control.

People are generally considerate, adaptable and eager to please. Watch what happens when a British person visits your house; pretty soon your whole family is saying “bloody hell.” In like manner, if you follow a certain correspondence standard, those who are paying attention will imitate and emulate.

For more information about Trautman’s techniques go to:

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at