Emails are hard. Words are hard. Basically no communication is easy or fail proof. Emails have a pretty high rate of professional fail, in large part because people forget that tone seriously matters and not everyone reads everything the same way.
A great example of this: I worked for a company for some time where the management for our team was off site, so our interactions were frequently done by phone or by email. The ones done by phone were fine-and I completely understood everything our management was trying to make evident to us. However, the emails frequently upset members of our staff. I noticed pretty early on that it generally frustrated who ever was having the worst day very differently than the person who was having an awesome day. They could both read the same email and inflect completely different messages into the tones of the email.
After a while, I also noticed that one particular manager repetitively failed at this form of communication. He was extremely enthusiastic, very excited, and always super positive in person and by phone. Unfortunately, email without emoticons does not leave a lot of room for expressing this sort of personality. In order to compensate for that, he would use CAPS or italics, or bold font, or… On the receiving end of these messages, it was extremely difficult to read whether he was enraged or emphatic. This interaction was difficult for many of our staff members and our work culture and team morale suffered from these miscommunications.
So how can this be avoided? What can anyone do to make sure that their messages are received and read the way they are meant to be?
First off, think about all of the perspectives of the email. As we say to our students, “Think about your reader.” Audience and recognizing the position your audience may be in is extremely important for sending a clear message without offending. You want to be sure that the contents of your message are clear, to the point, and unfailingly polite. That being said, refrain from being overly apologetic or emotional. These are professional emails-remain polite but clear at all times.
Second, avoid too many acronyms and abbreviations. Sometimes the nature of your job requires acronyms and they are okay. However, if you start throwing “SMH” and “LOL” and “IDK” into your professional emails, it may irritate your reader (particularly if they are not as text savvy as you are) and it makes you seem like a poor communicator. Those abbreviations/acronyms are perfectly fine in personal emails and texts, but when you are emailing for professional purposes, try to keep them to an absolute minimum.
Keeping the tone positive is critical to keeping the email effective and the reader from being offended. Avoid statements such as “You need to..” and “This is incorrect because…” and “You have to…”. Much like positive communication in person, keeping the messages focused on one specific, targeted topic and using “I” statements: “I feel that…”, “I see an opportunity for..”, “Please contact me with any questions”, etc. will help to keep the tone from becoming accusatory or demanding.
In addition, think finite. Deadlines and clear cut directions can be offered in email, in writing, and act as a great record of what was said and what directions were given or asked for. Be clear about your needs using those “I” statements, and offer spacing rather than bold or caps locked text to make sure that section of your needs to stand out. An example of that would be:
Please contact me with any questions you may have regarding this publication date.
The deadline for this event is October 1, 2014.
Changing the color of the font, numbers/bullets for directions or lists, and italicizing text also works well, but should be used sparingly.
Finally, try to remember some formal niceties. Remember when you had to learn to write a letter? “Dear Aunt Linda, Hope you are doing well. Etc. Etc. Sincerely, Megan”. That format works for professional emails and helps to prevent the message from being too informal and also from sounding too mechanic. You are writing an email that a human will read, so addressing it to said human, commenting on your hope that they are doing well, and signing it with a sincere end greeting and your name keeps the tone positive.
Including your contact information with your name and title at the bottom of the email makes it easy for the recipient to contact you if they have any questions. This can be done automatically by your email account by accessing your settings and setting up the “Signature”.
Keep it positive, keep it polite, and remember that every reader will read every email differently. For more information, resources, questions, or concerns, feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
-Megan Cole, Educational Coordinator, The Leader, Corning,NY.