Ugh. Jerry emailed me again. I hate Jerry’s emails.
There’s at least one in every office, and usually more than that. And if you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you. Some people are flat-out terrible emailers, unable to write a productive, communicative, effective email to save their lives. At best, this is annoying. At worst, it’s destructive; poorly written and poorly conceived emails can end up creating miscommunications, costing most time, and disrupting the collaborative chemistry between your team members.
So let’s figure out what can be done about this.
The Goals of an Email
First, understand that email isn’t the perfect medium for all communications, even though it’s the most popular mode of professional communication due to its accessibility, low learning curve, and inexpensiveness. It’s fast, it’s semi-permanent, and it can work for both one-on-one and team-based communication, so it’s a dream of a medium—but only if it accomplishes the following goals:
- Email must be clear. First, people need to know what the hell you’re talking about. If it takes people two or three times to figure out what you’re trying to say, your email isn’t effectively communicating anything.
- Email must be concise. Email isn’t the place to write a book; this is an instant medium, and should be approached with brevity. The shorter your message is (while retaining your prioritized content), the better.
- Email must offer direction. Every email should end with a list of action items, or some direction on where to go from there. If there’s no intended action or follow-up, there’s probably no reason to send the email in the first place.
- Email must save time. Email is fast and convenient, and it’s supposed to save you time. If you end up creating more tasks, more exchanges, and more headaches, you’re using it wrong.
With these goals in mind, let’s look at why some emails are flat-out terrible.
What Makes a Terrible Email
You’ve probably sent a few of these in your time, and you’ve definitely received some. These are some of the most irritating, frustrating qualities emails can have:
- Nothing sucks more than reading an entire, paragraphs-long email only to realize that nothing has changed and there’s nothing new for you to do. Your email needs to have a point. It’s going through an existential crisis and it’s desperate for a reason to be. Give it one. In your head, before you draft the email, think—in one sentence, what is the goal of this email? If you can’t think of one, you don’t need to send it, or else you can rely on another communication medium to get your message across.
- You already have your main point identified, but is that point coming across clearly in the body of your email? If you try to say one thing, but your email is interpreted as something else (or isn’t interpretable), you’ll be facing the same problem. Make sure you write a clear, concise, directed subject line, and try to stay on-topic in the body of your email. Don’t stray on tangents; if you have something else to say, write a separate email about it.
- Email isn’t the place to be telling long anecdotes or harping on unimportant details. You may be a great written storyteller, but you have to remember that email is intended to be a concise medium. If you end up rambling, you’ll turn your readers away, and your message could get lost in the shuffle. If you’re in doubt, go over your email before sending it and try to cut out as many unnecessary sentences and words as possible. More concise is never a bad thing.
- Remember, your email needs to have some kind of direction attached to it, and the burden of responsibility is on you to make that clear. At the end of your email, try to summarize your main points, and if there are action items to take or deadlines to hit, list them clearly. There should be no question about the next steps that need to be taken.
- In most applications, a conversational tone is fine for email, but if you start communicating in a literal conversational format—as in, asking lots of questions and relying on a back-and-forth interchange—you’ll compromise the main function of email in the first place. Save the conversations for IM threads and phone calls; emails should be more forward and thought through.
- Your email should be organized logically, with a clear introduction, a body, and a conclusion—even if these sections are short. You should also group your information into a scannable format whenever possible, capitalizing on bullet points and numbered lists to make it easier to read.
- Tone Deaf. Emails are a written communication medium, and therefore don’t enjoy the benefits of intonation, body language, and other secondary forms of communication that are associated with verbalization and in-person conversation. This makes them especially vulnerable to misunderstandings related to sarcasm, irony, politeness, and humor. Be aware of your tone throughout your written piece, and read it aloud if you have to.
- Error-Riddled. This may seem like an unimportant point on the list, but it has a bigger impact than you might realize. A typo every now and then can’t hurt, but if you’re consistently sending emails with misspellings, poor grammar, and inappropriate punctuation, you’ll develop a negative reputation for yourself. Even more importantly, your messages will have a higher likelihood of being misunderstood. Take a few extra minutes to proofread your emails before sending them out—it doesn’t take much.
Remember, these qualities are more than just mild annoyances—they’re going to get in the way of your ability to communicate with your team. Clear, concise communication is the best way to keep your organization operating smoothly, so if you need help getting your team together or improving your group communication, contact me or Sarah at dopplepop—we can train your team to be better writers, or help you set up better protocols for workplace emails.