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Before You Hit Send

These seven tips will help you master the essentials of effective email communication.

By Karen Leland and Keith Bailey

While email is the biggest communication tool in business use today, its remote nature, which eliminates tone of voice and body language, presents a huge potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. To minimize miscommunication and maximize efficiency, try these seven email tips.

1. Use a specific subject line.
One easy way to establish the context of your message is to write a subject line with a few well-chosen words that provide the reader with a clue to what you’re writing about. Avoid writing generic subject lines such as:

  • Re: Problem
  • Re: Report
  • Re: Request

You can help the reader understand the bigger picture of your message by referencing any related email to which you’re responding or taking a few lines upfront to explain why you are sending the message.

2. Minimize abbreviations.
Because email culture leans toward brevity rather than length, abbreviations are popular in this medium. However, messages that rely a great deal on acronyms to get their ideas across can confuse and annoy your reader. Use acronyms sparingly and try to stick to the ones that already are commonly used, such as FAQ and FYI.

3. Respect the reader’s time.
Survey after survey shows that people in the workplace have more work to do and less time to do it than ever before. Remember that when you send an email, you are, in a sense, contributing to this work overload by requiring your coworkers or customers to take the time to read and answer your message.

An award-winning writer once said that the key to great writing is editing. That adage is as true with email messages as it is with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Good emails are to the point but not so short that they create the impression of being curt.

4. Don’t OD on the CC.
For those reading this who aren’t old enough to remember where CC came from, it stands for carbon copy, which, in ancient times way back in the 20th century, was the only practical way to duplicate letters. The best thing about carbon copies was that they were limited; you could make only three good copies from any one document. Email, however, enables you to make virtually unlimited copies and send them off effortlessly and instantaneously with a quick click on the CC box. Of all the email complaints, sending out too many CCed copies is at the top of the list. Before you CC anyone, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this information critical/important for the recipient to know?
  • Is this information that the recipient would want to know?
  • Does this information require some action on the part of the recipient?
  • Am I just CCing this person to cover my electronic behind?

If you answer yes to any of the first three questions, then CC away. If the answer to the fourth question is yes, resist the temptation, live dangerously and don’t pass on information that clogs up the exit on your coworker’s electronic highway.

5. Review your email before you send it.
The number of people who merely type a quick email message on their keyboard and then shoot it off without reading it through is astounding. Falling into the trap of thinking, “It’s email; I can be casual about this,” is very easy. But don’t be fooled by the apparent informality of the medium—you’re still representing yourself, and you’re still sending out a communication that can be seen by an untold number of people. Customers are slow to forgive bad manners and probably won’t take the attitude, “Oh well, it’s only email.” Review your document carefully, because after you press the send button, you can’t take it back!

6. Apply the rules of grammar and spelling.
There are two schools of thought regarding the necessity of proper grammar and spelling in electronic messages:

  • People in the first school (usually those who don’t spell well) think that worrying about spelling and grammar defeats the spontaneity and convenience of email.
  • People in the second camp (the kids who got As in English) think that email is a form of written communication; therefore, it should be subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to its cousins, the letter, the memo and the fax.

The bottom line is that bad grammar and poor spelling create a negative impression on recipients and take away from the message you mean to get across. Any business communication on which you place your name needs to represent the competent professional that you are.

7. Make your message visually appealing and easy to read.
Few things are harder or more annoying to read than an email that has no paragraphs, consisting of a solid block of text with run-on sentences. Create an easier-to-read document by using no more than 75 words per sentence. Be sure to start a new paragraph for each idea and topic. Remember that in many cases, formatting such as bullet points, bold, and italics is lost in translation and may not show up on your reader’s pages in the same way that it does on yours. The best approach is to keep it simple so that anyone who receives your email can read it with ease.

Adapted from the book Customer Service For Dummies. Reprinted with permission.


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