Processing and Organizing Your E-Mail in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007

  • 6/13/2007

Creating Meaningful E-Mail Using the MPS PASS Model

The E-Mail PASS Model consists of four questions. We’ll review them one at a time, and if you want to pick out an e-mail message to practice on, choose one that is complex and that would take more than two minutes to write. In other words, choose a really meaty, chewy example so that you can experience the value of this model. Obviously, using this model for an e-mail message that requires a one-sentence reply would be overkill; however, we all have messages that require some thought, and this model is designed to support that thinking process.

The E-Mail PASS Model questions are as follows:


  • What’s the Purpose of your communication and does it relate to a Meaningful Objective?


  • What Action is involved and does it have a due date?


  • What Supporting documentation do you need to include?


  • Have you effectively summarized your communication in the Subject line?

  • Did you use the To, Cc and Bcc lines effectively?

  • If any man wishes to write a clear style let him first be clear in his thoughts.
  • —Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

What Is the Purpose of Your Communication?

To help you clarify the purpose of your communications, first identify the Meaningful Objective the e-mail message relates to. If it doesn’t relate to one of your objectives, you’ll want to look at renegotiating or disengaging from it. If it does relate to one of your objectives, ask the question, “What’s the outcome you want to produce as a result of this message?” Once you’re clear on the outcome and have thought it through, you can write your e-mail communication.

Notice that we haven’t asked you to complete the To line, the Cc line, or the Subject line at this point. We suggest you write your e-mail communication first. Once you’ve clarified the outcomes of the message, you complete your Subject line, To line, and Cc line.

Susan Burk, an IT program manager, received an e-mail message from her boss asking her to update him on the Microsoft Outlook Migration project. She realized she didn’t know the status of the project and needed to get accurate data. She started to type a quick message to Jennifer, her assistant, to find out what was going on. John interrupted her and said, “Let’s just pause and think about this for a moment.” Susan looked at him a bit surprised. In her mind, she was mumbling, “Hey, this is a simple enough e-mail. I can do this on my own, thank you very much!”

John asked her two questions, “What objective does this relate to?” and “What is the outcome you really want?” As Susan stopped to think about the communication and these questions, she realized that what she really needed was to receive a reoccurring, monthly project status report. This would enable her to monitor what was going on, and if the report was posted on SharePoint, she and her boss could access it whenever they needed it. Her eyes lit up! This was a much better solution. She grinned and said, “OK, perhaps I need to think through these communications a bit more!”

Example 11-1. Exercise 11-1

Pick an e-mail message that requires a comprehensive communication, take a moment to establish the outcome for your message, and then write the reply in the body of your e-mail.

What Action Is Involved and Does It Have a Due Date?

What type of action do you want the recipient or recipients to take as a result of your communication? By clearly stating the action, you have a better chance of it getting done.

Following are the four most common e-mail actions that we recommend.

  1. Action The recipient has to take a physical action step: order an extension cable. Write a review. Read proposal. Book a meeting for Management Team.

  2. Respond The recipient needs only to respond to your communication. There’s no action to complete: “Let me know if you can attend the staff meeting at 9 A.M. on Friday.”

  3. Read The recipient needs only to read the information. There is no need to take action or respond: “Read sales plan before our next STP meeting on April 20.”

  4. FYI only The recipient needs to file the information for future reference. There is no need to take action, to read, or to respond: “Enclosed is your approved expense report for your records.”

The reason to identify the type of action you’re asking the recipient to perform is to eliminate any confusion or guessing about your expectations. In many cases, the benefit is as much for you as it is for the recipient! In Susan’s example, she realized, with a little thought, that asking one of her direct reports to post a regular status report on the SharePoint site was a much more effective action than was asking her assistant to find out what was going on with the project. If Susan hadn’t thought this through, she wouldn’t have reached that conclusion. Think about your communication and clearly identify the action you want the recipient to complete.

Susan decided that her action was to delegate her task to Joe Healy one of her direct reports. She asked him to create the report for the Microsoft Outlook Migration project and post it each month to SharePoint, enabling her and her boss to access it easily.

Clarifying dates can help recipients prioritize their tasks more effectively. If everything you delegate is absent of a timeline, you’re relying on the recipient’s best judgment to know what your priorities are. That’s not a fair request to make of everyone. Most people need clear direction. Also, we do not assume that all tasks require due dates because not all of your actions need them.

When using timelines be discerning and make sure they mean something. It’s easy to use due dates, and it’s just as easy to overuse them. If you don’t hold people accountable to your timelines, they’ll eventually come to the conclusion that your timelines don’t mean anything. One day, when you give a date that really matters and your team don’t respond, you’ll wonder why. Don’t give out timelines unless you’re willing and able to follow up on them.

You can’t expect others to keep their due dates if you don’t keep yours. Remember, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” When you demonstrate being accountable to timelines, other people around you will aspire to do the same.

Finally, be sensitive when giving out timelines to recipients who don’t work for you. It’s important to mention a timeline so that everyone is aware of the impact if a task misses a deadline. However, you can’t reinforce a due date outside of your own team unless you’re working on a project with mutual benefit to both parties.

Example 11-2. Exercise 11-2

Take a moment now to review your e-mail message and clarify the action. Then, revisit the deadline of the related Meaningful Objective and evaluate if the action needs to happen by a specific date to ensure that the objective stays on track. Check the Calendar to ensure that the timeline will work, given staff meetings, vacations, and other appointments. When you’re clear that your due date is realistic, go ahead and add it to your message.

What Supporting Documentation Do You Need to Include?

Identifying the supporting information that the recipient requires to complete the requested action successfully reduces the likelihood of your message coming back to you with questions, creating additional e-mail.

Recently, we asked our operations manager at our company to create a cash flow analysis report. We attached an example of the report we wanted her to complete. This enabled her to accomplish the request without sending further e-mail messages inquiring about layout, data to include, comparisons, and time frames. Once again, moving your thinking to the front end saves you time and effort on the back end.

Example 11-3. Exercise 11-3

If you need to include supporting documentation in your e-mail message, you can either type it in the body of the communication, attach a file (a Microsoft Office Excel worksheet, a PDF file, a Microsoft Office Word document, a Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentation, and so on), or insert an item (Inbox, Contacts, reference, or e-mail files). To attach a file or an item, open a new e-mail message, and on the Message tab in the Include group, select one of the following choices on the Ribbon:

  • Attach File to insert a file from your computer

  • Attach Item to insert an item from your Folders List in Outlook

Figure 11-1

Figure 11-1. Susan’s e-mail message clarifies purpose, action, and supporting documentation.

Have You Effectively Summarized Your Message in the Subject Line?

After you’ve completed writing your e-mail communication, you can then summarize your message using the Subject line. Our clients often fall into the trap of trying to construct Subject lines first because it seems the intuitive thing to do. However, we’ve observed them consistently changing their subject lines after they’ve completed writing their communications. We suggest you construct your communications first, and then do your summary in the Subject line afterward. You will find that after you’ve clarified your outcomes and action and due dates it is a lot easier to create meaningful subject lines.

Three elements make a good Subject line:

  1. Clarify the Meaningful Objective or Supporting Project that the e-mail message relates to.

  2. Clearly indicate the action requested.

  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

An example Subject line might be “Microsoft Outlook Migration. Create monthly status report on SharePoint, by April 5.”

There are four different types of action that you can use in your Subject lines.

  1. Action Requested The recipient has to complete an action before he or she can respond. Example: AR: Outlook Migration: post monthly report to SharePoint starting April 5.

  2. Response Requested The recipient needs only to respond. No action is required. Example: RR: When do you need the PP slides for your Oct. vendor meeting?

  3. Read Only The recipient is required to read the document. Example: RO: Performance Review encl. for Holly Henson August 10 mtg.

  4. FYI only The recipient doesn’t need to read the document, but can file or delete it. Example: FYI: Updated P&L report for your Q1 records.

Imagine if you could sort your Subject lines by action—'Action Requested', ‘Response Requested', ‘Read Only’ and ‘FYI Only’ or if you could sort them by the objective or due date. Clearly written subject lines speed up your ability to process and organize your e-mail effectively. The objective lets you know immediately what it relates to. The action lets you know what your responsibility is. The due date enables you to look at your Calendar and Task list to see if it is possible to complete on time. Taking the time to create clear subject lines makes e-mail communication more effective and increases the chance that your e-mail will be responded to.

Another helpful tip is to use “EOM” at the end of your Subject line. EOM stands for End Of Message. By using EOM, you’re informing the recipient that the message in the Subject line is complete and the recipient doesn’t need to open the e-mail. For example: “AR: Fabrikam. Book 1 hour review mtg. with Peter Houston by June 15th. EOM.” This is a courtesy and it saves time for the recipients.

You’ll want to be sensitive when using Subject-line acronyms: Action Requested (AR), Response Requested (RR), Read Only (RO) or End of Message (EOM). Recipients will not know what you mean unless they’ve received training. Your best solution, especially with people outside of your team, is to avoid using acronyms altogether and stick with the basic three Subject line elements: objective, action requested, and due date. This type of subject line is clear and universally understood. If in doubt, spell it out!

Just as it’s easy to overuse due dates, it’s easy to overuse Subject lines so that they become meaningless instead of meaningful. One of our clients so overused the “Action Requested” Subject line that it now holds no value and people disregard it. Be discerning about how you use the Subject line, reinforce its value by reminding people when they are using it appropriately and reminding them when they’re using it inappropriately.

Example 11-4. Exercise 11-4

Create a subject line for your message. Include the Meaningful Objective or Supporting Project, action, and due date if appropriate.

Did you Use the To, Cc and Bcc lines Effectively?

The Purpose of the To Line

The To line and the Subject line are intrinsically linked. The Subject line clarifies the action that the recipients on the To line have to take. Therefore, be aware of who you’re placing on the To line and ensure that they are responsible for the action in the Subject line.

Here are two simple and useful questions to help you filter To line recipients.

  • Does this e-mail communication relate to the recipient’s objectives?

  • Is this recipient responsible for the action in the subject line?

If the Subject line requests an action, each individual on the To line is responsible for taking that action. Some people send e-mail messages with four or five people in the To line in the hopes that one of them will respond. Usually, each person receiving the message assumes that someone else on the To line will reply, and no one ends up responding. Be thoughtful and respectful when you assign recipients to the To line. People will observe your thoughtfulness and the results will be more effective.

If the action in the Subject line relates to multiple recipients who need to take different actions, clarify this in the body of the e-mail message so that everyone is clear exactly what’s needed. Figure 11-2 provides an example of a message with multiple recipients who must take different actions.

Figure 11-2

Figure 11-2. This e-mail message demonstrates how to make it clear that multiple recipients are required to take different actions.

The Purpose of the Cc Line

E-mail we’ve been carbon copied on dominates our e-mail boxes and is an endless source of frustration and unproductive behavior, although it really doesn’t have to be. The Cc line is only a courtesy copy, which means it needs to be read or filed, and no action or response is required. The Cc line is linked to the Subject line only by the objective and not by the action. Therefore, a useful question to help you filter your Cc line recipients is, “Will this e-mail impact the recipient’s objectives?”

If you ask this question whenever you’re about to type a person’s name in the Cc line, you’ll end up sending considerably less e-mail. We consistently question our clients’ use of the Cc line, and 8 times out of 10, they don’t need to use it. Take the time to pause and ask the question, “Does this communication impact the recipient’s objectives?” If it doesn’t, or you don’t know what the recipient’s objectives are, refrain from including the recipient on the Cc line. Believe me; you’re not helping people by sending them information that doesn’t impact their objectives. You’re just giving them more work to do and more distractions to overcome. Don’t be part of the e-mail problem. Be part of the solution by demonstrating effective use of the Cc line.

Example 11-5. Exercise 11-5

Assign the appropriate To and Cc contacts to your message. Do not send the message yet because we’re not quite finished.

The Purpose of the Bcc Line

If you want to protect a distribution list and keep individuals from receiving a Reply or Reply All, we recommend you use the Bcc line. Individuals on the Bcc line will not get messages if folks on the To or Cc line hit Reply and Reply All. It’s important that you are aware that if anyone on the Bcc line hits Reply All, everyone on the To and Cc lines will receive that reply.

Other than that, we do not recommend using the Bcc line. For example, if you have an HR situation and you want to blind copy the HR manager, we recommend that you send your message, and then go to the Sent Items box and forward the e-mail to the HR manager. This way you ensure there are no ramifications or concerns. As we say to our clients, “Be very, very careful when using the Bcc line.”

Questions To Ask Before Sending E-Mail Messages

The three final questions to ask before sending your e-mail message are these:

  • Does your e-mail message PASS?

  • Have you written the message so that it will not come back to you with questions?

  • Do you need to track this e-mail message in one of your 1:1 or SNA Waiting For categories?

This is your last chance before clicking Send to ensure that your message is clear and will produce the results you intend.

1. Does Your E-Mail Message PASS?

The PASS test is your final check to ensure that your e-mail message will be clearly understood.

To take the test, ask these questions:


  • Have you communicated your purpose and made sure that it relates to an objective?


  • Have you communicated the action requested?


  • Did you include the appropriate supporting documentation?


  • Have you summarized the message effectively on your Subject line?

  • Did you use the To, Cc and Bcc lines appropriately?

Figure 11-3 shows Susan’s message after she applied the PASS test.

Figure 11-3

Figure 11-3. Susan’s e-mail message demonstrating the E-Mail PASS Model questions.

2. Have You Written the Message so That It Won’t Come Back to You with Questions?

When we ask clients this question, they inevitably go back and edit their message to make it clearer. This is not only polite and respectful, but it also reduces the volume of e-mail exchanged. When your communications are clear, people can move forward with requests instead of e-mailing you back and forth to gain clarity.

Don’t underestimate this question. Just recently, we worked with a CIO and asked him this question repeatedly. He was a fast-thinking person who was having trouble understanding why we wanted him to slow down and put so much thought into his messages. At the end of the day, he received several responses to his e-mail messages with questions asking for more information and clarity. He raised one eyebrow and said, “Wow! You weren’t kidding. I really do need to be clear to ensure I don’t get e-mail responses asking questions! I suppose I better change my standard for what clear means.”

Writing e-mail messages so that recipients understand what you mean and don’t need to ask questions is not as easy as people think. It takes pausing and collecting your thoughts. To do this you need a quiet, uninterrupted environment because processing e-mail during meetings, when you’re talking on the phone, driving in the car, or late at night doesn’t support this process. Writing clearly is a skill and it takes practice and concentration.

3. Do You Need to Track This Message in One of Your 1:1 or SNA Waiting For Categories?

This question reminds you to consider if you want to track a delegated item. If you trust your team members to do what they say they will do, there is no need to follow up with them. We recommend tracking delegated items if you need to follow up because the action affects the completion of your objective. Or track the item if you question a team member’s ability to complete the item on time and you want to make certain the person does, or if you’re training a new team member to be accountable. However, you don’t want to police people by tracking everything you delegate just because you can! It’s important to trust the people you’re working with, and only track a delegated task if you have a specific reason to do so.

If you want to track the e-mail message you just wrote, we suggest that you Cc yourself so that the e-mail goes back to your Inbox, and from there you can either transfer it into one of your 1:1 categories or to your Waiting For category.

Example 11-6. Exercise 11-6

Make any adjustments to your e-mail communication so that it does PASS and will not come back with questions. If it is a delegated item that you want to track, copy yourself in the Cc line so that it returns to your Inbox, and then you can move it into a 1:1 or Waiting For category. We will show you how to move messages into your 1:1 or Waiting for Category in the section titled Dragging E-Mail to the To-Do Bar or Calendar.

Now that you have completed creating an e-mail message using the PASS Model you may notice that it took you a wee bit longer to do than usual. However, after you get the hang of it, it’ll move faster. And when you write clear, purposeful e-mail, you’ll end up reducing the amount of mail you receive and the amount of mail you send. You’ll reduce cycles of action and make progress toward your Meaningful Objectives. When it comes to processing e-mail, slowing down does, in fact, help you speed up!

Unfortunately, some people have allowed the speed of technology to dictate the pace at which they work. But just because technology moves fast doesn’t mean that you have to. Your best results will come from pausing and giving yourself time to think.

The more you practice and demonstrate writing clear, meaningful e-mail messages, the more those around you will take note. Demonstration is one of the most powerful instigators of change. When you’re consistent in your behaviors, others will start to do the same. It’s inspiring to work with people who go the extra mile and demonstrate excellence. This is another example of how “small things done consistently in strategic places create major impact”!

Many of our clients have shared with us that they want support with changing e-mail habits and have requested products that would help them reinforce new behaviors. In response to this request, we created our Take Back Your Life! 101 E-Mail Webinar Series. There are three 1 hour webinars in the series: Storing E-mail So You Can Find It Fast, ‘Writing E-mail that Gets Results, and Getting to Zero in Your Inbox. You can purchase and download each webinar individually or as a series from the Products page on our Web site at, or go to the MPS Products page in the back of this book. The feedback we’re getting is that they are assisting new and current customers to create and maintain new e-mail habits that increase productivity, save time, and support work-life balance. Check them out!