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Communicate Better with B-Mail!

It has long been known that honeybees perform dances on their return to the hive to broadcast messages about the vicinity and quantity of nectar-bearing plants. Aristotle in 330 BC, described this behavior in his Historia Animalium. In 1947, Karl Von Frisch performed a series of experiments to validate his theory of "bee-dancing" and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

More recent research under the leadership of Dr. Zachary Huang, Michigan State University indicates that pheromones play an important part in how a bee colony adjusts its distribution of labor most beneficially.

Huang's team found that forager bees gather and carry a chemical called ethyl oleate in the stomach. The forager bees feed this primer pheromone to the worker bees, and the chemical keeps them in a nurse bee state. As forager bees die off less of the ethyl oleate is available and nurse bees more quickly mature to become foragers. It appears that this control system is an example of decentralized decision making in the bee colony.

So we know that bees are not only good decision-makers, but adept communicators. Some messages they broadcast to the entire hive. Some messages are specific to a type or group within the hives (worker bees, nurse bees, etc.) So what can we learn from them?


Over the last 15 years, we've led many Communication Workshops for all kinds of teams. One of the exercises our clients find particularly helpful is the development of guidelines or best practices. One of the most valuable lessons we've learned from our clients is how critical email is to team communication...and how problematic. Taking a lesson from our bee friends and our former clients, here's a list of five best practices to consider when composing an email.

1. Consider your audience and use language that is appropriate (these means watch out for acronyms, jargon or slang) and clear.

2. Be parsimonious with your words. If it's a complex issue that requires a great deal of explanation, email is probably not the best medium to choose. If it is the ONLY way you can communicate your message, consider using an outline format or brief bulleted lists to help your reader follow your train of thought.

3. Don't over-CC or BCC. Including too many people in emails can be very confusing and several clients have relayed tales of two, three, sometimes four people working on the same project because they believed it was assigned to them.

4. Make the most of your subject line. The average employee views between 40 and 200 emails per day. If you don't want your important information "swept away," make sure the subject line is salient (and maybe even attention grabbing!). 

5. Make sure you email recipients know what is expected of them. Do they need to take action? Make a decision? Read it and think about it and respond later? One of the major gripes in our workshops are emails that are vague about what the next step should be and who should take it.

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