How I Email: Peter Shankman, Author, Entrepreneur, and PR Strategist

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

Peter Shankman, a media entrepreneur, is best known for founding Help A Reporter Out (HARO), which was acquired by Vocus, Inc. less than two years after he started it. He’s the author of five books, including “Faster Than Normal, Unlocking the Gifts of the ADHD Brain.” Shankman is seemingly always on the move — delivering keynote speeches, hosting a podcast, participating in Iron Mans, skydiving, while dabbling in angel investing. With all that going on, he not only manages his own inbox, but finds time to periodically clean out his mom’s inbox too.

What’s your email approach?

I try to respond to emails as quickly as possible. The second it comes in, if I can, I reply to it immediately. My goal is to reply in as few words as possible. I’m of the belief that way too many people spend way too much time saying way too many things that don’t need to be said. A simple “yes” or “no” or max one to two sentences max will often do.

I look at emails like they’re tweets: How can I respond to this in 160 characters or less?

I leave my email open all day. However, I don’t have notifications. It might sit in a window, but I have 20 other windows open. I’m not looking at that window all the time. If I had notifications, I’d never get anything done. So I keep the notifications off and I work. When I come up for air I look at my emails. I immediately respond. But then I go back to what I was doing.

People either seem to feel like they have a good handle on their email or that it’s out of control and a huge time suck. Do you fall into either of those camps?

No. It’s just a tool. How you use it determines whether or not it can drive you crazy. I hear, “Oh, I have email bankruptcy.” My response is: “Well, you know, how’d you let it get that bad in the first place?”

Take my mom, for example. Her Gmail has 12,000 emails in it. She’s in my Google Apps Suite and I’m constantly getting notifications that she’s about to go over the quota. I’ll say, “All right, Mom, let me see your iPhone.” When she’s not looking, I’ll do a search and delete all her Lord & Taylor email updates or Bloomingdales’ sale notification emails. It’s incredible. She must have 4,000 of them in her inbox! It’s not that she’s not paying attention. She just doesn’t delete anything. It’s almost like the TV show “Hoarders.”

I like to keep things clean. I might have 20 or 30 emails in my inbox at any given time, but they’re usually things that I know I have to answer or I’m waiting on more information. I’d say 90% of the emails I get, I can delete immediately.

People overthink email a lot. It’s just a tool. Use it as a tool. Use it the way it works for you.

Speaking of tools, do you have any favorites?

The number one tool I use probably 20 times a day is I answer a lot of emails on my phone. I can forward any email I want right to, specify when I want to follow up and it will essentially just send me back that email when I’ve asked it to remind me to follow up.

You’ve written about how to write an email that people will actually read. What are your general guidelines for that?

Shorter is better and make sure it’s useful. Make sure there’s information in it that I can read. Something along the lines of, you know, “Hey, I have this thing for you,” is a lot different than, “Oh, cool idea.” Right? Give them exactly what they need.

When I am using my email I am going into someone’s inbox and I am asking them for permission to sit there, understanding that it’s on me to make sure that I’m making it as easy as possible for them to do whatever they have to do with the email. If I’m giving them email the right way, it’s respectful to them. I’m respectful of their time. I’m not writing a book for them to read when all they need is one thing to know about.