How to Write Email with Military Precision

This is a discipline we have been working to use consistently in my Operational Group at Quantum.

Original post on Harvard Business Review

nov16-22169984846In the military, a poorly formatted email may be the difference between mission accomplished and mission failure. During my active duty service, I learned how to structure emails to maximize a mission’s chances for success. Since returning from duty, I have applied these lessons to emails that I write for my corporate job, and my missives have consequently become crisper and cleaner, eliciting quicker and higher-quality responses from colleagues and clients. Here are three of the main tips I learned on how to format your emails with military precision:

1. Subjects with keywords. The first thing that your email recipient sees is your name and subject line, so it’s critical that the subject clearly states the purpose of the email, and specifically, what you want them to do with your note. Military personnel use keywords that characterize the nature of the email in the subject. Some of these keywords include:

  • ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
  • SIGN – Requires the signature of the recipient
  • INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
  • DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient
  • REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
  • COORD – Coordination by or with the recipient is needed

The next time you email your direct reports a status update, try using the subject line: INFO – Status Update. And if you need your manager to approve your vacation request, you could write REQUEST – Vacation. If you’re a project manager who requires responses to your weekly implementation report from several people, type ACTION – Weekly Implementation Report. These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your emails will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox, and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (It also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)

2. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). Military professionals lead their emails with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF. (Yes, being the military, there is an acronym for everything.) It declares the purpose of the email and action required. The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader. Here’s an example BLUF from the Air Force Handbook:

BLUF: Effective 29 Oct 13, all Air Force Doctrine Documents (AFDDs) have been rescinded and replaced by core doctrine volumes and doctrine annexes.

The BLUF helps readers quickly digest the announcement, decision, and when the new procedures go into effect. The reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the decision. He or she likely wants to know “how does this email affect me?” and the BLUF should answer this question every time.

For my corporate job, I don’t use the acronym “BLUF” because it would be unclear to recipients, but I have started leading with “Bottom Line” in bold at the start of my notes. Sometimes, I even highlight the bottom line in yellow so that my point is abundantly clear. Here is an example of a BLUF adapted for corporate use:

Subject: INFO – Working from home


Bottom Line: We will reduce the number of days that employees can work from home from three to one day per week effective December 1st.


  • This is an effort to encourage team morale and foster team collaboration
  • All members of the management committee supported this decision

Shannon knows that no response is required because it was marked INFO. She also quickly grasps the information in the email because of the Bottom Line. Because this is a big change in corporate policy, background details are provided to show that the decision is final, supported by management, and intended to result in positive effects for the company.

3. Be economical. Military personnel know that short emails are more effective than long ones, so they try to fit all content in one pane, so the recipient doesn’t have to scroll. They also eschew the passive voice because it tends to make sentences longer, or as the Air Force manual puts it, “Besides lengthening and twisting sentences, passive verbs often muddy them.” Instead, use active voice, which puts nouns ahead of verbs, so it’s clear who is doing the action. By using active voice, you are making the “verbs do the work for you.” Instead of, “The factory was bombed by an F18,” military professionals would say, “An F18 bombed the factory.”

Even though short emails are usually more effective, long emails abound, even in the military. If an email requires more explanation, you should list background information after the BLUF as bullet points so that recipients can quickly grasp your message, like in the above example.

Lastly, to prevent clogging inboxes, military professionals link to attachments rather than attaching files. This will force the recipient to check the website that has the attachment, which will likely provide the most recent version of a file. Also, the site will verify that the recipient has the right security credentials to see the file, and you don’t inadvertently send a file to someone who isn’t permitted to view it.

Here is an email example for corporate use that uses keywords in the subject, bottom line, background bullets, and active voice:

Subject: INFO – Meeting Change


Bottom Line: We scheduled the weekly update meeting for Thursday at 2 PM CST to accommodate the CFO’s schedule.


  • We searched for other available times, but this is the only time that works, and it’s important that you are on the call, so that you can address your P&L.
  • CFO will be in Boston on Thursday meeting at an offsite with the management committee.
  • He wants to review the financial report that can be found here (insert link) before the call.

By adopting military email etiquette, you will introduce a kernel of clarity to your correspondence and that of your colleagues and clients.


Are Leaders Born Or Made?

Erika Andersen 

Original post on

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
One of the cool things about writing books is that you get to do interviews.  It’s oddly fun to have strangers ask you questions that you have to then respond to off the top of your head. Kind of like business improv.

What makes it easier is that people tend to ask me a few questions over and over.  By far the most common (in fact, I have yet to do an interview where this question wasn’t asked) is “Are leaders born or made?”  Interestingly, I’ve noticed that most interviewers think they already know the correct answer:  they believe leaders are born.  That is, they assume that some people come into this world with a natural capacity to lead, and everybody else doesn’t, and there’s not much you can do about it.

What I’ve learned by observing thousands of people in business over the past 30 years, though, is that – like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  Some people are, indeed, born leaders.  These folks at the top of the leadership bell curve start out very good, and tend to get even better as they go along. Then there are the folks at the bottom of the curve: that bottom 10-15% of people who, no matter how hard they try, simply aren’t ever going to be very good leaders.  They just don’t have the innate wiring.

Then there’s the big middle of the curve, where the vast majority of us live. And that’s where the real potential for “made” leaders lies.  It’s what most of my interviewers assume isn’t true – when, in fact, it is: most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.

So, what does it take?  If I’m an OK leader, and I want to become a great leader, what do I do?

The single most powerful way to grow as a leader: Become truly self-aware.

This is, hands down, your biggest secret weapon in making yourself a great leader. Before I go on, please understand: I don’t mean self-involved.  There are lots of “leaders” who are way, way too focused on themselves, their evolution, their drama, etc. etc.  Becoming truly self-aware means to cultivate, on a daily basis, an accurate sense of how you show up in the world and what motivates you.  For instance: What are your actual strengths and weaknesses as a leader and as a person?  What impact do you have on others? What do you care most about?  What’s your moral compass, and do you use it as a guidance system?  How closely do your actions line up with your promises?

Of the executives I’ve coached over the past two decades, I’d say that only about 25% of them are genuinely self-aware. The rest do not see themselves accurately – sometimes to an astonishing degree.  Without exception, the more self-aware someone is, the easier he or she is to coach; the more improvable and better able to accept what they need in order to improve.  When people who have low self-awareness want to grow, it’s like someone who wants to travel to New York and he thinks he’s starting in Philadelphia – but he’s actually in Botswana.  The steps he would take to get to New York, thinking that he’s in Philly, will definitely not work for him (that pesky ocean is going to be a big shock).

To translate this into leadership development: let’s say that I think I have great relationship-building skills, when the truth of the matter is that people find me overbearing and insensitive. When someone suggests that I need to make real changes in this area in order to be a more effective leader, I’m unlikely to be open to that counsel.

I know of three simple (not easy, but simple) ways to dramatically improve your self-awareness:

1) Become a fair witness.  I’ve talked about this often inpast posts.  To be a fair witness means to report your experience as accurately and neutrally as possible.  The more emotional attachment you have to something, the more challenging it is to be a fair witness of that thing; most of us are very emotionally attached to ourselves and our own success. “Fair witnessing” yourself is easiest if you take a mental step back and imagine that you are another person observing you: someone who sees you very clearly.  Reflect on your actions, your strengths and weaknesses, your mistakes and successes, as though you are this impartial third-party. What would he or she say about how you show up?

2) Invite feedback. People who want to be fully self-aware know that none of us can see ourselves entirely clearly without the aid of others.  It’s like trying to know what you look like without having a mirror. If you want to have a more accurate sense of how you are operating in the world, build a small group of people who know you well, see you clearly, want the best for you — and are willing to be drop-dead honest with you in the service of that. I’d also suggest that you take a look at some of the 360 leadership assessments available to you. I’m partial to our Accepted Leader Assessment, based on Leading So People Will Follow, but there are certainly other good ones out there, as well.

3) Listen. I am a huge fan of the power of listening.  I believe it’s foundational to success as a manager, as a leader, as a parent, spouse, colleague, human being. And it’s essential to true self-awareness.  If you can learn to listen fully, without filtering what you hear through your pre-existing notions, you will find that everyone around you is continually giving you clues – both subtle and overt – about how you’re showing up, what they think of you, and how you’re impacting them.

As you become more self-aware, you’ll start to be able to hone in on both your strengths as a leader (so you can make best use of them) and those areas where you can improve….and move yourself up the bell curve to great.

3 Simple Rules to Increase Your Leadership Communication

Formulate a Winning Argument: Simply Put, Less ACTUALLY is More

Original post on

CREDIT: Getty Images
Those in supervisory roles often believe that complexity equates to intellect. Making something too simple shows a lack of intelligence. The reality is that it takes confidence to simplify. Einstein said that the “highest level of intelligence is SIMPLE.” Failure to simplify really shows a lack of confidence. We call this the Too Simple Syndrome.

Coach John Wooden often said, “The biggest mistake coaches make is they over-coach.” This is absolutely true for formulating arguments and presentations. The biggest mistake people make is trying to over-teach. Other people are not as expert as you on your subject, and they do not need to be. Avoid the Too Simple Syndrome, and show confidence in the simplicity.

A client of mine had the task of convincing some higher-ups of the need for an expensive, but necessary, software for his firm. The leaders who had to sign off on the purchase had little knowledge of the software or the process that the software would simplify. My client prepared and polished a presentation explaining the ins and outs of the software, and why it would greatly improve the efficiency and profitability of the firm.

Having been so diligent to ensure that every detail was carefully outlined and explained, my client was surprised and frustrated to find that many people asked questions and expressed doubts that were clearly covered in his presentation. He said to me, “These people just don’t listen. It’s so obvious that the firm needs this software, but they want to kill the project anyway.”

My client made the common mistake of assuming that everyone else is as expert as you on your area of expertise. It seems so obvious, but so many people grossly overestimate the level of understanding from other people. Once we become expert on a subject, it is difficult to remember what it was like to be a novice. It is incredibly common to make the mistake of trying to sway others to your argument by educating them on the complexities, thinking they will follow your logic and reach the conclusion you want. This mentality might seem to make sense, as it is beneficial for others to know that you have a deep level of understanding on a topic, but trying to bring others into too deep a level is a losing battle.

Follow these three simple rules to increase your leadership communication:

1. Identify Your “3 Most Important”

Stick to the Rule of 3. Specifically, allow yourself to cover no more than 3 major points, and the less the better. Give no more than 3 pieces of information within each of those major points. If you can not explain your argument using the Rule of 3, then you need to go to work to understand it more fully.

2. Highlight the “1 Must”

Once you have your 3 main points, clarify the 1 most important point of the three that your audience must take away from your interaction.

3. When In Doubt “Delete”

The more you say, the less believable you become. Highly successful people work on being precise with their words and their arguments.

Forcing yourself to simplify your presentation will allow you to understand it more deeply yourself.

When my client significantly simplified his presentation into the “3 Most Important” and “1 Must” and deleted all unnecessary sentences, words, and letters people jumped on board. He did the work for his audience of simplifying rather than trying to get everyone else up to his level of understanding.

It worked for him, and it will work for you as well

The Trolls Inside

For me, this struggle is real.

Thanks to Seth Godin who, once again, clearly identifies the problem and the steps to correct.

Seth's BlogThe Trolls Inside

The worst troll is in your head.

Internet trolls are the commenters begging for a fight, the anonymous critics eager to tear you down, the hateful packs of roving evil dwarves, out for amusement.

But the one in your head, that voice of insecurity and self-criticism, that’s the one you need to be the most vigilant about.

Do not feed the troll.

Do not reason with the troll.

Do not argue with the troll.

Most of all, don’t litigate. Don’t make your case, call your witnesses, prove you are right. Because the troll knows how to sway a jury even better than you do.

Get off the troll train. Turn your back, walk away, ship the work.

See the original post by clicking here.

Flattery Is Like Perfume

I was recently remind of a great story by Pastor Alistair Begg. With a bit of help from some great folks at @TruthForLife, I was able to find the story. A great reminder with a great truth.

truth-for-life-260x195-v7When I was a small boy my father use to take me to a number of events that I didn’t want to go to. Not least of all the singing of male voice choirs. And it always seem to happen on a Saturday afternoon. And as part of salve to my reluctance he would he would allow me to go into a confectionery store and purchase sweets or candies as you would say. And those were the days when they still had them in the big jars and they meted them out in 2 ounces or 4 ounces or whatever it was and so you pointed up and the lady got it down and then she poured it in the tray and weighed it and put it in a bag and she gave it to you. So there was a transaction involved.

And I remember particularly one place on a Saturday afternoon. I must have been all shined up and ready for action. Brill cream on the hair. Shaved up the back of my head. I looked like I was ready for the Army.

There were, I remember, a number of people in the store. I don’t know what happened in the shop, but it must have been that that somebody said complimentary things about this shiny faced, wee chap that was waiting for his sweets.

And when the shop cleared and it was just the lady and myself, this lady, who I don’t know, I met her once in my life, as she handed me the bag of candy, she lent over the counter, and she said, “Sonny, flattery is like perfume – Sniff it, don’t swallow it.”

Flattery is like perfume

Sniff it, don’t swallow it.


You can hear the full teaching at: “The Pulpit – It’s Power & Pitfalls

An abbreviated version of the quote is also available at the teaching “Betrayal and Denial

What are some of your favorite Alistair Begg quotes or stories?

The Inspiration of a Noble Cause

Joshua_Chamberlain_-_Brady-HandyThe inspiration of a noble cause involving human interests wide and far, enables men to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone. The consciousness of belonging, vitally, to something beyond individuality; of being part of a personality that reaches we know not where, in space and time, greatens the heart to the limit of the soul’s ideal, and builds out the supreme of character.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

View on Path

Make an HTML Signature in Apple Mail for OS X 10.9

For quite sometime I’ve wanted to create an HTML signature file that included the links to my key  social media channels. I’d done this before at work, where we used Windows machines and Outlook.Figuring it out for the Mac Apple .mail app was bit more challenging… at least for me. Then I came across this VERY detailed, step-by-step explanation by Matt Coneybeare in his post, “How to Make an HTML Signature in Apple Mail for Mavericks OS X 10.9“. He really does a great job of explaining the process.The only addition I’d offer to his post relates to the code section. If you’re like me, and your not a code ninja, another great tool I came across is Free Online HTM Editor: This simple tool allows you to add your text, make adjustments to the font style, color, etc. Adding images with a related link – it’s a snap. Then just copy the HTML that it generates and add it to your signature file code as Matt describes. Once I was done, this is what I ended up with:Signature-File-Sample I take no credit for the post. Matt did a fabulous job of presenting, what could be considered difficult information, and sharing it in a very simply way. I hope you find Matt’s post and this information as helpful as I did.

How to Make an HTML Signature in Apple Mail for Mavericks OS X 10.9 by Matt Coneybeare

There are plenty of tutorials online to create an HTML signature in Apple Mail with older versions of OS X, and you have probably already seen my tutorial on how to add HTML Signatures in Lion or Mountain Lion, but the process has changed slightly for OS X Mavericks (10.9). Here is how to do it:

1. In, go to Preferences > Signatures and create a signature with any random content. Name it something meaningful. You will be swapping this out later.

2. Write an html page inside of your favorite text editor. I use TextMate 2. The page should not have html,head or body tags, should include only inline css, and should only consist of basic html elements (div, span, img, a, etc…). Here is some example code to get you started.

Open the folder containing the placeholder signature. This step differs if you are using iCloud or not. You can determine if you are using iCloud for by checking System Preferences > iCloud

3. Using iCloud: ~/Library/Mobile Documents/com~apple~mail/Data/MailData/Signatures/

Not using iCloud: ~/Library/Mail/V2/MailData/Signatures/

Open the folder to show your email signatures in Finder by holding down the Option key and clicking the “Go” menu in Finder. Check here for more tips if you are having trouble opening the ~/Library folder.access-library-22620c06acc7de2712c8eb7fa8254495

4. When you created a temporary placeholder signature in step 1, Mail automatically created a ubiquitout_XXXXXXX.mailsignature file that represents it in this folder. Locate the .mailsignature file in the ~/Library folder. It will have a random name. If it is not there, you may still be in “edit” mode on the signature. Try closing the Mail > Preferences Window. If you need help, it helps to sort the folder by “Date Modified” and look for the most recently updated one.


5. When you have located the placeholder .mailsignature file, open it with your html editor. You will see a few metadata lines on the top of the file and some html code below it.

6. Keep the top metadata lines, but replace the html in the file with your own from step 2.

7. Save the file.

8. If you are using iCloud, skip this step and proceed to Step 9. You can determine if you are using iCloud for by checking System Preferences > iCloud. Still unsure? Skip this step — you can redo the steps and include this one if your signature is not working correctly at the end.

Even though you save this file, may use the original version and overwrite your new signature unless you lock the file. With your text editor now closed and the file saved, find it again in Finder and press command-i to bring up the info pane for the file. On this info pane, mark the “Locked” checkbox.

9. Restart and go to Preferences > Signatures. If you have images in your signature, they will not show here in the preview, but they will show in the real signature if the image source location is valid.

10. To test that it is working correctly, simply compose a new email and set the signature to be the one with the name you created in step 1. If the images show, and everything looks as it should, you have succeeded!

If you need additional help with html signature design or implementation, I have founded a company called GiantUser (it’s an anagram of “signature”) to do just that with very reasonable prices. Check it out!

Finally, I also run a small software company called Urban Apps. It pays the bills so I can take the time to write helpful posts like this one. If you found this posting helpful at all, I would really appreciate it if you would check out my iPhone/iPad Apps on the iTunes App Store.

Check out Matt Coneybear’s site so you can see the original post and all his other information.

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