Writing effective e-mails: the ten mistakes you need to avoid
We all receive and write a growing number of e-mails. This method of communication is really dominant at this point; our in-boxes overflow with messages of all sorts, some important, others eliminated without even being opened.
If there’s not much we can do when we are recipients, we can, however, be pro-active when we set out to write.
We’ve already devoted several articles to how to write a good business e-mail, today we’re going to concentrate on the mistakes to avoid so as not to end up directly in the trash.
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1st mistake — copying to everyone
We’re often tempted to put “all” the people involved in CC, not so much to inform them, as much as to cover all the bases. The result is that some of us receive so many e-mails it’s hard to discern which ones to read and which to give correct priority to, thereby becoming victims of possible misunderstandings or lack of information.
Copy only to those who have to be informed or who have asked you to do so
2nd mistake — Replying to an e-mail on one subject but talking about another
Every e-mail you send should have a clear, brief subject line that tells the recipient what you’re going to discuss in detail in the message. Depending on the subject, the recipient can then decide whether and when to read it, and can archive and retrieve it later. It follows that every e-mail should refer to one specific topic only. Instead, sometimes we receive messages that are regular patchworks of topics with generic subjects that don’t facilitate classification. Worse still are those who write to a correspondent using the last e-mail received and clicking “reply” to start a new conversation that has nothing to do with the subject.
Make sure the subject is coherent with the content
3rd mistake — Using language that is too formal
Electronic mail has basically replaced written correspondence, making the interaction more direct, rapid and modern. Certain expressions typical of the classical business letter such as “With reference to yours of the 3rd inst. we take this opportunity to hereby convey our best offer” should be replaced, for example, with “Following our meeting last week I’m enclosing the project we have drawn up as discussed”.
Courtesy, graciousness and formality (when necessary) can also be achieved using simple words.
Write the way you speak (assuming you are well-spoken)
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4th mistake — Omitting salutation and signature
Using a direct form of language doesn’t mean you should forget you are speaking to another human being, even though he or she is on the other side of the screen. Always remember to greet the person directly and adequately, in line with the tone of the conversation. However, it’s best to avoid prosaic questions like “how are you?” because an e-mail is not a chat line.
At the end of the message, it’s better to opt for a personal greeting, adequate to the time of day and type of relationship: thanks for your help, see you soon, have a nice day, best regards, etc.
Always remember to sign with your name (or first and last name if more formality is required); the automatic signature that many companies use serves as a “virtual calling card” and doesn’t replace the name at the end.
Greet and engage with the person as if you were having a face-to-face conversation
5th mistake — Forgetting to indicate the subsequent actions
How many times have you finished reading an e-mail only to ask yourself “OK, so what am I supposed to do now…?!?”. To avoid this effect, make sure to clarify the subsequent steps or what it is we are asking the recipient to do. We suggest avoiding trite expressions like “I await your kind reply” because it rarely prompts any action. Make it more personal by writing something like “I need your confirmation by the end of the week so we can schedule the delivery”.
State explicitly what the recipient should do
6th mistake — Misusing capital letters, ellipsis, exclamation points, etc.
Writing in capitals on the web is like shouting and makes your message difficult to read, but a single word can be written in capitals to make it stand out.
Ellipsis indicates parts of the text that are missing and which recipients should fill in with their own thoughts (which might not coincide with yours). Since misunderstandings are always lurking in the background, let’s make sure to convey our message clearly and completely.
If you want to give emphasis to a concept you can use an exclamation point. Better to avoid a long line of !?!? that could appear excessively aggressive, however. Grammar and punctuation are not formalities: they communicate care in writing and enable the recipient to grasp the tone of the message.
Check your grammar and punctuation carefully
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7th mistake — Writing more than 10 lines
An e-mail isn’t a poem: it’s a way to send a quick, brief message that is clear and goes directly to the point. If you need to have an in-depth and detailed discussion, we suggest that you draw up a separate text to send as an attachment. E-mails are often read via smartphone and this makes brevity even more essential. Generally, we suggest the layout of your messages in 3 paragraphs:
- Introduction (expanding on the subject, saying what I’ll talk about)
- Developing the topic in the body of the text (which can easily be organized in bullet lists)
- Closure (where I explicitly outline the next steps)
Brief doesn’t mean incomprehensible: make sure the message is clear.
Less is more
8th mistake — Writing more than 3 e-mails on the same subject
Electronic mail is not our only means of communication, though sometimes we seem to forget that. In some situations, indeed, it really seems that we aren’t able to get our message across by e-mail and that despite the exchange of a sequence of messages no solution is found. After the third e-mail it’s time to stop and pick up the phone — or walk over to your colleague’s desk: it will be easier for you to understand each other.
You can then write a recap e-mail of what you have decided or agreed orally.
Know when to write and when to phone
9th mistake — Enclosing too many links or attachments
It’s better to limit the number of outside references via links: there can be a maximum of 2 or 3 (for example, the company website, the online card of an event or other) to prevent fragmenting the thread of the conversation with too much information.
Also as regards enclosures, it’s important not to clog up the recipient’s in-box too much. Decide which documents are strictly necessary and if you enclose more than one, indicate clearly what they are. Besides, the anti-spam filters are rather hostile to links and enclosures.
Be sparing in your use of links and enclosures
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10th mistake — Sending e-mails after hours
If you are writing professionally to someone, you should respect their hours and the days in which they are effectively at work. Don’t send e-mails during the weekend or in the middle of the night. The hyper-connectivity that characterizes our lives means that we can receive messages practically anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we want to. Choose carefully when to send your e-mails and you’ll see that the person on the other end will be more likely to read them, grateful for your respect.
Send professional messages only during business hours