Nothing irks me more than when I send someone an email (or two, or ten) and I don’t hear back. I had this experience recently when I contacted an employee at the City of Toronto about a problem on my street. The response? Silence. Not even an “out of office” message, which would have at least explained why he didn’t respond.

Eventually we did connect, but let’s just say I was not impressed. This person’s attitude towards responding to emails was that somehow they didn’t count as real communication — or lack thereof. But just because email is a quick way to communicate (or can languish in one’s inbox for days) doesn’t mean it can’t have a negative impact on lives and careers. We’ve all seen the way powerful public figures can be negatively affected by their email communications. (Think: Hilary Clinton, Martha Stewart et al.)

It’s also not a new phenomenon. Virginia Heffernan wrote about it in an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2011. She noted that the concerns created by disclosing potentially damning information by email even led to a new acronym, LDL, which stands for “let’s discuss live.” “LDL” means that the person receiving the email has no intention of leaving an email trail of their thoughts that could later be used against her or him. And yet, to this day people still can’t seem to avoid the pitfalls of email. It’s because, like it or not, email has become the primary form of daily business communication. So if you want to make sure your email communications stay on a positive track, you really have to watch for the following three pitfalls.

Three Pitfalls of Email Communication

1. The “Send First, Think Later” Approach
The tendency, to quickly write and click “send,” means that emails are frequently poorly composed. And this can backfire in numerous ways. The recipient may be offended by what he or she perceives as an inappropriate tone. Spelling or grammatical errors may create the impression that the sender does shoddy work — or just isn’t all that smart.

2. The “Devil in the Details ”
It’s not easy to convey complex ideas or thoughts in writing. It requires nuanced wording. It requires being precise, not vague. Vague wording — common to emails — may leave the recipient frustrated or confused. It may lead to a flurry of subsequent emails seeking clarification. Even a simple idea poorly conveyed by email can cause that result. For example, have a look at this email exchange between two people I’ll call Joe and Josephine:

Joe: It’s OK, I worked it out.

Josephine: What did you work out?

Joe: The thing we emailed about this morning.

Josephine: Which thing? We emailed about a few things.

Joe: Don’t worry about it. We’re good.

Josephine: Now I am worried. Can we talk tomorrow?

Joe: You mean on the phone?

Josephine: Yes, on the phone. Noon?

Joe: Eastern or Pacific?

That’s nine emails, when one or two probably would have sufficed, had the first email contained all of the information, clearly expressed.

3. The “Reply All” Nightmare
Anyone who has ever been copied on multiple emails is familiar with this pitfall. Sure, you can simply delete emails that you are copied on that don’t actually concern you. But first you have to glance at them to make sure that they aren’t, in fact, something that could be significant. Another option people sometimes take can cause more problems. He or she will write a snippy email asking not to be included in the “reply all,” which leads to still more emails being received by everyone on the list.

So, how can you avoid the above email pitfalls? It’s really not that difficult. But, it does mean being attentive and taking a little more time with your email communications. Here are my five favourite tips:

  • Think first; send later.
  • Consider your recipient, and tailor your tone accordingly.
  • Choose words carefully to make sure you are saying what you intend to say.
  • Re-read and edit before hitting “send.”
  • Use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Oh, and one more thing. When someone emails you? Make sure you answer. Perhaps, you can’t respond to the email within minutes. However, you can respond as soon as you’re able. Otherwise, you run the risk of alienating the sender. And that sender might just be someone you’ll want on your side one day. It might, for example, be that person with whom you hope to do business. Or, maybe it’s a citizen who chose to blog about your poor attitude when it comes to a timely professional response!

Need help with your business email communications? We’ll teach you how to avoid the pitfalls and achieve the optimal response. Contact me at The Language Lab.

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