Lately, at the Language Lab, we’ve been doing a lot of consulting projects that focus on improving business email writing. The Language Lab has an in depth email writing program called Emails That Work, but because I’m constantly amazed by how many people tell me they consistently receive badly written business emails, I decided to blog about it as well.
Every time I meet with a new group of clients for a session about email writing or do a presentation on business writing one of my first questions is: “How many of you receive badly written emails at work?” Invariably every hand goes up and they roll their eyes. People tell me they either don’t understand the emails they receive because they contain run on sentences or grammatical problems, or the tone of the email comes across as being offensive or annoying.
Since I can’t address all the many nuances of good business email writing in this one blog post, at the very least, I’d like to help you avoid the worst mistakes that many of us grapple with every day in the workplace.
The Most Irritating Email Writing Mistakes…and How to Fix Them:
Mistake #1: Rambling
You know what happens when you get a business email from a “rambler.” You read about a quarter of the email then leave it languishing in your inbox, intending to read the rest later. But you never quite get around to it. (Then when you encounter the sender, he or she is genuinely surprised that you don’t know about some nugget of information that was buried in paragraph ten. “But it was in the email!” he or she says, aggrieved.)
The Fix: Be Concise
Keep business emails concise; under four short paragraphs is optimal. If an email needs to be longer, probably its contents are too complicated for an email message. In that case you’re better off having a phone conversation or a face-to-face meeting than trying to convey the information by email.
Mistake #2: Long, Run On Sentences
This is closely aligned to Mistake #1, Rambling. Funnily enough, the email recipient’s reaction is similar. In other words, the recipient gives up on the email quickly, not reading it through, and consequently not absorbing the key points in the message.
The Fix: Be Ruthless
You must be ruthless about using short sentences. You must also be ruthless about using correct punctuation. Just because emails can be written quickly doesn’t mean you can throw away punctuation and capitalization. It’s difficult to read anything that is not properly punctuated (or for that matter, written in proper paragraphs). Remember, business emails are not intended to be tributes to James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Mistake #3: Careless Use of “Reply All,” “Forward,” “To” “Cc” and “Bcc”
Misuse of these fields is the email equivalent of speaking before you think, or leaping before you look. They are frequently used carelessly, which is the sure sign of someone who is in too much of a hurry to consider who really needs to receive (or be copied on) a particular email.
The Fix: Be Thorough
Carefully consider who needs to receive your email before filling out those “To” and “Cc” fields. Similarly, take care with “Reply All” and “Forward.” If you are sloppy with any of the above you risk getting a reputation as someone who irritates people by sending emails unnecessarily, demanding extra time from recipients.
Mistake #4: Inappropriate Tone
Sending an email to your employees or colleagues that begins with an impersonal phrase, such as “You have been identified,” or with a brusque command, such as “ACTION,” guarantees a grumpy rather than cooperative response.
The Fix: Be Considerate
Treat an email almost as you would a business letter written on company letterhead. You don’t have to start with “Dear so and so,” but you certainly should take time for “hello,” and “thank you.” You should always be to-the-point, but never brusque. Just as being friendly and polite go a long way in personal business encounters, so do they in email communication.
Joanna L. Krotz, at Microsoft Business, cites a study suggesting that the average business professional spends up to two hours a day on email. Two hours! That’s a big part of the workday.
Given that, ask yourself how you want to spend those two hours? Sending productive emails that make for a more profitable and pleasant workplace? Or tearing your hair out with email overload? You know how it goes; one badly written email requires another email seeking clarification. And before you know it, there’s a mountain of emails about a subject that could easily be dealt with in one, well–written email.
**Have you got any “email nightmare stories” to share?**