Life by Email: An Interview with Author Phil Simon

Guest Blog by Emily Esposito – Smartsheet

In the time it took you to read this sentence, 20 million emails were written.

There’s no question we all receive too much email (over 100 billion emails are sent and received each day). But, no matter how many times we complain about time wasted over email or the sheer amount of messages in our inbox, the truth is, we actually like it. And science can prove it.

We get a rush of dopamine to the brain’s pleasure centres every time a new email comes in. Researchers believe that our compulsion to constantly check email is driven by the dopamine releases that occur in anticipation of receiving good news.

Along the sames lines, our sense of value gets inflated the more emails we receive. According to award-winning author and recognized technology authority Phil Simon, “we secretly love email. We tell ourselves, “Look at how essential I am to the company!’”

Simon’s new book, Message Not Received, examines how we communicate and often misuse language and technology at work, especially email. Via extensive case studies, he demonstrates how business professionals are embracing simpler language and new technologies to communicate in a more effective way.

Smartsheet got a chance to interview Simon about business communication mistakes, trends, and best practices.

Here’s the conversation:


Q: What are the most common mistakes in communication you see happening in business?

A: There are two key mistakes to emphasize: too much email and too much jargon.

In mid-2014, a large software vendor released a press release on its new, next-generation, big data platform as a service. In the first sentence, there were 61 words. It was totally confusing.


Business jargon

I’m not against changes in language—language changes very organically, but many, many people are using more jargon and confusing people more than ever. And, when we get that jargon in emails, we just shut down. We make mistakes and we don’t understand what we’re supposed to do.


Q: Has email always been an ineffective communication channel? Was there a turning point?

A:  It’s not always effective or totally ineffective. Communication has always been contextual. Certain mediums can be better than others. Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” He’s absolutely right.

I’m not anti-email; I’m anti-inefficiency. Productivity usually suffers on incessant email chains.

Let me make it more concrete. Let’s assume that 80% of emails are actually clear and you receive 10 emails per day. That means two don’t make any sense to you. That’s manageable.

We actually get 120 to 150 emails per day. More than 20 times per day, you receive a message that doesn’t make any sense to you.

Email was never designed to be a collaboration tool. You can’t search your inbox as effectively as you can search 25 trillion web pages. It usually takes us less than one second on Google to get what we want. Our inboxes contain 20,000 messages. At least a few times per day, we can’t find something in our inbox.

Brass tacks: Email should not be our default communication tool.


Q: Do you have a general rule-of-thumb about when it’s best to email, use chat, or talk in person?



A: First, I have a three-email rule. After three, we talk in person. Second, I pick up the phone if I want to catch up with someone or explore different opportunities. Third, it drives me crazy if someone sends me multiple attachments via email. I like collaborating in real time. And lastly, I will not engage in a difficult ‘conversation’ over email.


Q. What does the future of business communication look like?

A: The future of business will be split. You always have your early adopters, people who won’t manage a project over email and go with tools like HipChat, Jive, Yammer, Smartsheet, and many others. Early adopters will maintain an advantage over companies that refuse to embrace truly collaborative technologies. Organizations that use antiquated tools are missing out. More and more companies will embrace collaboration tools; they have to.

Simon closes by saying, “There is not one best tool. I want people to think carefully about what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. I want people to ask questions about whether or not they’re communicating efficiently.”


About Phil Simon



Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received. He consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, and many other sites.