7 Steps To Curing Your Empty Promise Disease

Time is precious, but being busy is no excuse to ignore the people you work with. Here are a few tips to help you distill your messages, and follow through.

Busy people often don't do what they say they will. It's just so easy to ignore an email, leave a phone call unreturned, delete a text message. The technology we've come to depend for nearly all our communications has also become a carrier of a pandemic of empty promises.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's noticed. I've recently polled a number of colleagues, most in the tech field, and they're saying the same thing. No one seems to know why, but all acknowledge that there's a marked increase in unreturned emails, one-way communications, and a general lack of follow-through.

Some have indicated a vague sense that it's tied to the tyranny of technology that keeps us connected to everyone all the time, so we're finding it more difficult to sort through the noise with a reasonable heuristic. Others surmise that we're finding it really hard to say "no" since we know that saying "no" requires more time to help others understand our reasoning--and time is the scarcest of personal commodities. Whatever the reason--and there are surely better informed explanations--I offer here seven ways that may help stanch the progress of the disease of empty promises.

1. It's OK to Say No

It's ok to say "no" or "not now." Really, a thoughtful "no" is often much better than a "yes" if there's little intention to follow-through on set expectations. One of our partners has become so notorious for making empty promises that his name is being used to describe the action of promising a certainty and then going completely silent. (As in, "yeah, I sent an email to the client last week and he totally Smithed me").

2. Reply Promptly

If you receive a follow-up communication and don't have time to offer a thoughtful reply, send a quick, "Got it. I'll review and get back to you in [timeframe]." If we truly value other people's time and the efforts they're making to build a partnership, then even if you haven't enough time to give a thorough response, a quick acknowledgement can be really effective.

3. Set Expectations

If you know that your schedule will restrict your ability to reply in a timely fashion, before ending your conversation, let the person know, "I may not be able to reply for some period of time…." While this may send a signal that you're less motivated, you set the proper expectations and build a bridge of trust.

4. Invite A Stalking

Sometimes when I know that I'm heading into a particularly busy period, I'll invite a partner to stalk me--by saying something like, "if you don't hear from me after x days, please feel free to connect with me or my assistant…and I won't be bothered if you are persistent." This signals that you're serious about the partnership, but you're aware that other priorities may subsume your attention for a period.

5. Enable Editing, Not Authoring

Most people prefer to be editors rather than authors. If you're the one following up, then be sure to reiterate as concisely as possible what you gleaned from your meeting/conversation, who owns any follow-up items, and what you understood the timeframe to be. When you send that message, invite edits, additions, corrections, and clarifications. I had a great meeting with a potential partner a few weeks ago and sent a concise recap of what I'd heard. When the reply came to the email, the other party agreed with all the points I'd conveyed, but corrected the time expectation. That was super helpful since it both confirmed our objectives while setting resource expectations.

6. Be Concise

Keep communications tight. I am really bad at this. But I've found that the most effective method of follow-up is to keep the language short--not more than a few sentences. This is art more than science, and its effectiveness varies by the recipient.

7. Match Your Audience

Here's a rule of thumb: measure your own communication length by the communications you receive. If your partner or prospect sends pithy emails or leaves short voice mails, you should design your communications in a similar manner.

Not one of us is immune to the unkept promise pandemic. Whether we're tyrannized by technology, overrun by out-of-control demands, or we've acquiesced to lower standards--we may be displaying symptoms of this spreading malady. So perhaps it's time to apply ourselves to discovering an antidote.

--Scott Walchek is the Founder, CEO, and Chairman of Trōv, a software company that helps people collect and benefit from the information about every thing they own, based in San Ramon, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWalchek.

[Reminder: Blend Images via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • CitizenWhy

    On conciseness: If you get a lengthy email with a question to questions, call the person. You will often find  that the person did not ask the question he or she really wanted to ask. You could have made a lengthy answer that would turn out to be completely irrelevant, not through your fault, but through the muddle of the other person's communication.

    Even when the person sent the question he or she really wanted to ask, it is often smart to call, get the question answered briskly, and ask the other person to send you an email summarizing the answer.

    Whatever happens, people will be more careful in communicating with you in the future.

  • CitizenWhy

    Number 5 is particularly important with difficult or untrustworthy superiors. If there is a formal dispute, your original email will stand as the official version in any legal action - unless the other party replies with a clarification. Then that would have better standing. But you might reply back with a further clarification or question.

    Untrustworthy superiors lie and deny regularly. Pin them down in writing.

  • Lee McCroskey

    This reminds me of Strategic Coach founder, Dan Sullivan, and his "Four Habits of Referrability". He encourages entrepreneurs to:
    --Be on time.--Do what you say.--Finish what you start.--Say please and thank you.Build trust by following through and developing a reputation for dependability.