• Matthew Stern

To Email or not to email, that is the question? Seven pitfalls to avoid in your emails.

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.

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 say a lot that cannot be conveyed in an email.  You cannot read a person’s tone of voice or body language.  This can result in misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Therefore, clarity is of great importance.  Haven’t you ever written an email that was taking in a totally different way than it was meant?  In long threads, be clear about what answers are to which questions.  Few things are as confusing as asking someone multiple questions in an email and getting a reply back, “yes.”  Clarity will be your ally.


In an online article, Psychology Today quoted research by a UCLA psychology professor, Albert Mehrabian concluded 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.” For the full article, click here

 EXAMPLE: In a recent email thread with a director and GM I’m working with resulted in over 10 emails back and forth about our rehearsal schedule 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.

When we understand the challenges inherent in emails, we can insure productive communications are happening.  So here they are, seven pitfalls to avoid in 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. Therefore, before reacting to an email by firing off a quick response. 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 exactly that.  Devices like sarcasm do not tend to be clear in emails either, so before hitting send, re-read your email to make sure it reads as intended, with a calm clear head.


3.       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 the solution or decision.  Making a lunch plan can take a dozen emails over multiple days. 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.


EXAMPLE: Even with my best friends, I have to remember to just call and not email to make plans sometimes.  With all our conflicting calendars, it’s so much simpler to have a conversation!

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 clear communication. 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 or explain to the cast in the beginning that I will always email the schedule by a certain time and if you don’t receive it, please reach out to me.  Then they become responsible.

EXAMPLE: These days, I send an email to all my casts to introduce myself and distribute important information.  This is an efficient use of time and insures that the everyone receives the exact same 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.       And mobile compounds these concerns. With mobile we have the ability to read our emails as we ride an elevator or hop in a cab.  Our responses in turn become short or curt, or worse, archived and forgotten.  Ever receive an important email as you are heading into the subway, oh wait, the train is coming, gotta run to catch it… now what happened to that email? Deleted, archived, marked as read and then gets buried under other emails while you race underground to rehearsal? It’s just one other way that the speed of email communication, writing, sending, reading, responding can lead to a misinterpretation or non-response.

6.       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 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.  

EXAMPLE: 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 a whole list of people, or worse, cc them all. 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.  Emails are so quick and easy to write and you can still copy/paste most of the body.  So put a little more effort into it and address networking emails personally.


7.       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 not inform the others on the chain about important information.  Or worse of all, intend to send a smart aleck response to the sender and instead send it to everyone.  Check your default settings and check exactly who the email is going to before sending.  When starting a thread to many recipients, think about it in advance.   Does everyone need to know who is receiving it and may need to reply all or not.  Rehearsal/Performance reports?  Best bcc, so replies only go to you, the stage manager and not to the entire distro list.  Does marketing really need to know when a certain prop will be in rehearsal?  Does the wardrobe supervisor really need to know about an upcoming interview for the choreographer?

EXAMPLE: I’ve heard a story, maybe urban myth of someone who accidentally replied all to a industry wide email saying negative things about a colleague. Needless to say, this did not help their standing in the community.


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, 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.

Here is a great pic with some smart guidelines about this topic as well.

Wishing everyone happy and productive emails and phone calls!

#SMproblems #stagemanager #emails #communication

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