No discussion of business communication today would be complete without dealing with the most popular method of trading arguments today—email. Email has replaced casual conversation as the most common means of exchanging business information, telling jokes, and spreading gossip. Texting is giving it a run to be sure. Whether the email you author travels the cyber-path if the Internet, or remains confined to your company intranet (internal network), there are six key things you should know about cyber-letter-writing so you can become truly productive on the job.
1. Context in the Subject Line: If you want your email to be opened at all, your subject line better contain some context that the target recipient can relate to or it will hit the SPAM file faster than you can hit send. At work, this should be easy. People know you and your name will provide the context, unless you are in a large corporation and are trying to reach around the company to unknown readers.
If you are trying to reach those who don’t know and love you, as in marketing to them, better provide some value right away in the subject line and try to reference some legitimate means where you have a past connection with that person, perhaps through a common associate or referral. You know better than to spam innocent strangers anyway, so I won’t help you out there.
Make sure your context avoids words that trigger automatic spam filters, like “Free”, “increase your ___”, “Lose 50 lbs”, etc. If it sounds like an ad, understand that it won’t even hit the inbox of up to 90% of your list, and you can get blackballed by the servers as a spammer and never know it.
2. Know Your ABCs: Remember that an email message is intruding upon your reader’s time, space, and bandwidth. You’ve got to ensure that your messages follow the ABCs of all effective business writing—accuracy, brevity, and clarity. If you’re stating facts, research them to make sure they’re genuine. If you’re stating opinion, say so. Pinpoint what you want to say and make sure it’s accurate.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and is critical to effective email messages. Get to the purpose of your email message in the first sentence; whether you seek information, want to inform the reader, or move that person to action, don’t keep him in suspense. Make your points and provide your support as quickly as possible.
What about clarity? Avoid using big words trying to impress the reader—they won’t. “Speak” through your message in the same way you would speak to your neighbor, using simple language and clear phrases. It’s easy to misinterpret meaning when reading an email, so make sure your messages are absent of ambiguity.
3. Know the Rules: Guess what? Email is written correspondence. Doesn’t it follow, then, that you should follow the rules of basic business writing when you compose email messages? Make sure you have a clear objective, that you have a clear picture in your mind’s eye of what you want to say and what you want to happen—before you start writing.
How is your mail message going to flow? For emails, putting the bottom line first is a strategy that has little downside. State the most important items at the top of the message, flowing through to supporting evidence later. Make it easy to read, using headings or numbers to call attention to specific areas of your message. Emphasize key ideas with bold or italic text.
Unless you’re talking to a good buddy, never write an email and hit “send” without stepping back, looking at what you’ve written, and editing where appropriate. You would be surprised what gets blown away from your first email draft. Heed the words of Samuel Johnson who said, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Take your time when composing your message so it is a pleasure to read.
4. Know Your Audience: The ease of sending email is also the reason that many people hold these invasive messages in the same disdain as a telemarketing call received during the dinner hour. In the days when your copy list was limited to about five people because the carbon copies were only readable for that many layers, you were very careful about who to add to the coveted roster. Use the same discretion with email distribution lists. Before sending any email message, ask yourself, “Does this person really need to know what I’m saying?” If the answer is no, don’t include her in your distribution.
5. Know Your Netiquette: You know what’s great about email? It’s so easy to create a permanent message and send it to tens, even thousands, of people. What leverage! Guess what’s bad? It’s so easy to take your permanent message and send it to tens, even thousands, of people. Let that little fact serve as a reminder that you need to be extremely careful about what you say in your message and how you say it. Email has no volume control. The reader can’t determine your facial expressions and body language. Consequently, human nature causes many people to interpret your message in the worst possible light. You can offend hundreds of people in one fell swoop, and those careless words can come back to bite you. Ouch!
Virginia Shea, in her best selling book Netiquette, explains the following dilemma. Computer communication allows us to speak to people we might otherwise never meet, bringing the world closer. The funny thing is, the technology is strangely impersonal, so since the listener is at arms length, people will often say things in a much more terse manner than if the reader was there in person. As MacIntosh evangelist and Twitter superstar Guy Kawasaki suggests, ask yourself, “Would I say this to someone’s face?” Your answer will provide some perspective on your email style.
6. Know Yourself: Like anything you do, your email messages paint a self-portrait. If you send messages replete with misspellings, grammatical errors, and fowl language, you’re telling everyone who reads the message that you don’t really care about your work; you might even be a jerk. This is an easy trap to fall into because email is so simple to compose and send that we use the arm’s-length nature of the medium as an excuse for professional laziness.
Use a signature file that shows up at the bottom of every message that identifies you and makes contacting you easy, including phone numbers. As unbelievable as it sounds, some people won’t want to respond via email. Autograph your emails with excellence. That alone gives your message a much better chance at being heard and influencing others.
There are many technical things that you can do to enhance your email messages that leverage your ability to communicate. Always remember, you’re talking to a living, breathing person, not an inanimate computer. If you want some easy and practical guidelines, follow the five steps listed above, and you will become a cyber-mailing sensation. More importantly, your message will have the impact that you want and help your business succeed.