Why Do We Still Do Email So Badly? (Part 2)

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TL;DR: Three important keys to effective business email writing are congeniality, content, and closure. Read on for the particulars.

Email is different from other forms of communication and it is typically done pretty poorly by most business-people. It’s just hard to get the words to come out right to make good sense and carry your intended message.

It lacks context, timesharing, tone, and so many other intangibles.It doesn’t convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. And sarcasm (though not typical in business writing) is particularly dangerous to use in email.

If a message can be misinterpreted, it most likely will be misinterpreted.

Another thing you have to realize is that email is asynchronous. Just because you send a message, does not mean that the reader is going to read it right away. They may be away from their desk or choose not to read it for hours. They may not read it at all. In any case, email should never be treated as a substitute for live conversation.

In a conversation, there is some minimum of shared context — you might be in the same physical location, on a call or video chat together. In those cases, there is the commonality of real time interaction, body language, and facial expression.

When you generate a document for paper, usually there is some context embedded in the medium — a brochure for an upcoming event, a birthday card for your nephew, a report for your supervisor, or something similar.

With email, you can’t assume anything about a sender’s time, location, frame of mind, profession, interests, or future value to you.

This means, among other things, that you need to be very, very careful about giving your receivers some context.

There is another difference between email and other forms of communication. What you “sound” like when composing a message might not “sound” like what your reader “hears.” In live conversation, your vocal cords make sound waves that are perceived basically the same by both your ears and your audience’s.

The words you use in your email message might easily be misinterpreted as sarcasm or disappointment without your vocal guidance and body language.

Another distinction with email is the varying display possibilities. What you see when composing a message might not look like what the reader sees. The paper that you write your love note on is the same paper that the object of your affection sees. But with email, the software and hardware that you use for composing, sending, and reading may be completely different from what your correspondent uses. If they receive their email on an iPhone, LG, or Samsung device (and depending on the app they use), your message’s visual qualities may be quite different from what you see on your screen. Thus your email compositions should be different from both your paper compositions and your speech.

As referenced in the previous post, email should be clear, concise, and cogent. In this post, we will focus three other Cs: congeniality, content, and closure.

Congeniality: You will find that some people don’t use a greeting line. That’s just impolite. You should always greet your reader. It’s common courtesy to address people when you encounter them.

Just because you are writing business email does not mean that you do not have to be polite.

Every email recipient should be greeted just as they would in a live encounter. You wouldn’t walk up to Bob and say, “I need you to get this box delivered by 5pm.” You would greet him and say, “Hi Bob. I need to you to get this box delivered by 5pm.”  See the difference? This guidance applies to all emails initiated by you.

You should also use a greeting upon first reply to an email you receive. Again, it’s courteous to say hello back to the original sender. Once two messages have passed, you can drop the greeting, since you’ve already established rapport.

Content: Business email is not the place to tell a story or build a case with logic. (Unless you are masterful storyteller and you can keep your audience riveted to the end. Actually, even then, it is not a good idea to tell a story in any business document.) The reason is that your audience will start to draw conclusions from the start and you don’t want that.

YOU know where you are going when you write A, then B, then C. The problem is your audience does not. And so you need to start out with the Bottom Line Up Front.

Let’s face it. People don’t read all of their email. They skim it. Some people don’t even do that. Last week someone told me that they usually just read the first line of the email and then delete it. So, what does that mean? It means you’d better get your point across in the first line. State it clearly and boldly.

The greatest weakness in ineffective writing is that it doesn’t quickly transmit a focused message. Too much writing hides the main point. All good business writers insist on putting the “bottom line” first. Let’s call it BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. Here’s how it works.

Start each email as if you were permitted to write only one sentence. Write that sentence first.

After that, you can use bullet points to keep things clear and concise. Just be sure to lead your reader down a well-defined path with the goal of your message set up in the first sentence.

Closure: This subject actually has three points: 1) the closing, 2) the signature, and 3) the Subject line. I know, you’re thinking, “How is the Subject line in the close of the message?” You’ll soon see, but first let’s look at closing and signature.

Your closing should reflect the tone of the message. By this I mean, if you have action items listed in the message, write a very short summary of what you expect to get done; if your message is loaded with information, remind your reader to save or move this content to a proper repository; if your message could be confusing (and of course it would not because you always follow effective business writing technique), ask your read to call for clarification; or if you want to close the message to prevent further communication on the subject, end with EOM (End of Message).

Now, in reference to email signatures, make yours informative and helpful. This means providing contact information so people don’t have to look up your phone number if they need clarification. Make it easy for them to reach you. It’s a lot easier to get a response to a “Please call me.” email message when you phone number is right there below your name. Why make the person search in a directory or spreadsheet?

Consider your email readers like customers. Make it easy for your customer to buy what you’re selling.

Finally, we get to the Subject. The single most important aspect of a subject line is that your recipient chooses to read the message attached to it. Once you have their attention and they want to read your message, you have won the battle of the overloaded Inbox.

Since you have already written your message, the Subject line should be fairly easy to assemble.

After writing your message, you should be able to figure out if you are requesting information, directing a subordinate, sending a status report, or just suggesting a place to have lunch.

Knowing the meat of the message allows you to select an appropriate opening word or phrase. For maximum effect, use subject starters like Action:, Request:, FYI:, and Update:. After the starter, summarize your message. You know, BLUF. It’s perfectly acceptable to restate part of your BLUF line in the Subject if that is the best way to entice your reader. If you are having trouble coming up with a concise, informative subject, read your message once more and pick out the theme just like you were preparing to write a book report.

Follow the points of guidance and techniques listed above and the ones from this post and you should find that more of your emails get read, you’ll have fewer replies, and you will reduce confusion. All combined, and you become pretty darn effective in your business writing and your overall productivity, while also improving the performance of others who receive and read your messages.

Your Mindful Moment:

Want to improve response rate and reduce confusion in your messaging? Be nice, put the bottom line up front, and make it easy to reply and act.

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