Personal Computing: How Not to Stick Your Foot in Your Mouth Via E-mail

Personal-Computing-Logo color web jan14By Reid Goldsborough

E-mail is the most common form of business communication today and among the most common forms of all communication. Yet many people communicate poorly with e-mail.

That’s the opinion of Janis Fisher Chan, and I agree. Chan makes her living doing something about this.

She’s the co-founder of Write It Well (www.writeitwell.com), a publishing and training firm operating out of Oakland, Calif., since 1980 that specializes in helping business people write clearly and concisely in e-mail and elsewhere. She’s also author of the just published book E-Mail: A Write It Well Guide, and eight other books on business writing and other topics.

I talked with her about why we write poorly in e-mail, what consequences this can have, and how we can improve.

One reason for ineffective e-mail messages, she said, is that many people write e-mail who have never written seriously before and have never learned writing fundamentals. Another reason is that people, even in a formal business setting, regard e-mail as conversation and don’t pay attention to the details that not only help you communicate but also make you look good, or bad.

You may not think any negatives could result from an e-mail message to your buddy four cubicles down full of slangy language and misspellings and without capitalization. But if he forwards it to his boss, and his boss forwards it to his boss, you might look like a junior high school drop-out in the mind of someone deciding your next raise.

Appearance counts. Don’t cut corners in trying to be efficient or act too casual in trying to be cool. “People wind up conveying a sloppy image of themselves and their organization,” said Chan.

Your e-mail won’t accomplish anything if it’s not seen and read. To help ensure that your e-mail is seen and not filtered out by an overzealous anti-spam program used by your recipient or his Internet service provider, pay particular attention to your subject line.

Avoid trigger words such as “free,” “make money,” “buy,” “save,” and “sex.” Don’t try to disguise trigger words by replacing letters with punctuation marks. Be careful about exclamation points. Don’t use all capital letters.

To help ensure that your e-mail is read, Chan recommends that people composing e-mail messages think as journalists when writing and editing stories.

Make your subject line a “headline.” Rather than using a general, nondescript subject line such as “Important information,” use words that clearly indicate what your e-mail message is about and why your reader should read it, such as “Accepting applications for flex-time program” or “Health benefits to change next year.”

In the body of the message, use the “journalistic triangle.” Place your most important information first and expand upon it with supporting detail. Make the less important points further down stick out with such things as capital letters, then support them with detail if necessary.

E-mail is similar to older forms of writing in needing to know what you want to accomplish and how to best accomplish it according to whom you’re writing. It’s different in that you typically need to accomplish your goal very quickly.

People reading e-mail typically are busy, with lots of e-mails to go through and unable to spend the same time with any given message that they would with a newspaper or magazine article. “Imagine that your reader is about to go through airport security on her way to an important meeting,” Chan said. “You have 15 seconds to shout out your message before she disappears into the crowd. What would you say?”

You also don’t want to waste your own time with e-mail. We often shoot back e-mail responses rather than consider whether a response is needed, which can keep e-mail conversations going and going without serving a useful purpose, she said.

One of the most pressing recent concerns about e-mail has been potential legal liability. Regard any message you send through e-mail as being as private as a postcard sent through the mail.

Be especially careful about potentially offensive content and tone in your e-mail, recommends Chan. Many organizations have e-mail policies that spell out appropriate use of e-mail, but not all do.

E-mailing porn images or even off-color jokes could get you fired or your organization sued. Similarly, avoid the temptation of using e-mail to forward any joke to everybody you know. Most have probably already seen it or don’t care.

For more of the above, check out Write It Well’s Web site or Chan’s book, available in major bookstores and through online book sellers.

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