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How Not to Stick Your Foot in Your Mouth via E-Mail
by Reid Goldsborough

Link-Up Digital
November 1, 2005

E-mail is the most common form of business communication today; it’s among the most common forms of all communication. Yet many people communicate poorly with e-mail.

That’s the opinion of Janis Fisher Chan, and I agree. Chan is the co-founder of Write It Well (http://www.writeitwell.com), a publishing and training firm operating out of Oakland, Calif., that, since 1980, specializes in helping businesspeople write clearly and concisely in e-mail and elsewhere. She also authored the newly published book E-Mail: A Write It Well Guide, as well as eight other books on business writing and additional topics.

I talked with Chan about why we write poorly in e-mail, what consequences this can have, and how we can improve.

One reason for ineffective e-mail messages, she said, is that many people who have never written seriously before and have never learned writing fundamentals compose e-mail. Another reason is that people, even in a formal business setting, regard e-mail as conversation and don’t pay attention to the details that not only help you communicate but also make you look good (or bad).

You may not think any negatives could result from an e-mail message you sent to your co-worker that’s full of slang, misspellings, and improper capitalization. But if he forwards it to his boss, and his boss forwards it to her boss, you might look like a junior high school dropout in the mind of someone deciding your next raise.

Appearance counts. Don’t be careless while trying to be efficient or overly casual while trying to be cool. “People wind up conveying a sloppy image of themselves and their organization[s],” said Chan.

Your e-mail won’t accomplish anything if it’s not seen and read. To help ensure that your e-mail is seen and not filtered out by an overzealous anti-spam program used by your recipient or his Internet service provider, pay particular attention to your subject line.

Avoid trigger words such as “free,” “make money,” “buy,” “save,” and “sex.” Don’t try to disguise trigger words by replacing letters with punctuation marks. Be careful about exclamation points. Don’t use all capital letters.

To help ensure that your e-mail is read, Chan recommends thinking of yourself as a journalist when composing e-mail messages:

  • Make your subject line a “headline.” Rather than using a general, nondescript subject line such as “Important information,” use words that clearly indicate what your e-mail message is about and why the recipient should read it, such as “Accepting applications for flex-time program” or “Health benefits to change next year.”
  • In the body of the message, use the “journalistic triangle.” Place your most important information first and expand upon it with supporting detail. Emphasize the less important points that appear later in the message with such things as capital letters; then support them with detail if necessary.

E-mail is similar to older forms of writing in that you need to know what you want to accomplish and how to best accomplish it according to whom you’re addressing. It’s different in that you typically need to accomplish your goal very quickly.

People reading e-mail typically are busy. They have lots of e-mails to go through and are unable to spend the same time with any given message that they would with a newspaper or magazine article. “Imagine that your reader is about to go through airport security on her way to an important meeting,” Chan said. “You have 15 seconds to shout out your message before she disappears into the crowd. What would you say?”

You also don’t want to waste your own time with e-mail. We often shoot back responses rather than consider whether an answer is needed, which can keep e-mail conversations going and going without serving a useful purpose, she said.

One of the most pressing recent concerns about e-mail has been potential legal liability. Regard any message you send through e-mail as being as private as a postcard sent through the mail.

Be especially careful about potentially offensive content and tone in your e-mail, recommends Chan. Many organizations have e-mail policies that spell out appropriate use of e-mail, but not all do.

E-mailing porn images or even off-color jokes could get you fired or your organization sued. Similarly, avoid the temptation of using e-mail to forward any joke to everybody you know. Most have probably already seen it or don’t care.

For additional tips, check out Write It Well’s Web site or Chan’s book (which is available in major bookstores and through online booksellers).


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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