The Green Sheet Online Edition
October 25, 2010 • Issue 10:10:02
Think before you send
In the brave new world of high-speed communication, email is the new letter, and texting is the new email. It's part of our changing views on formal and informal correspondence.
Generally speaking, the paper note is going the way of cursive script: an archaic form that's no longer being taught in school. However, email etiquette is part of most business school curricula and of increasing concern to the global business community.
The right mindset
Rules of engagement for sending and receiving email are easy to follow, so why are they overlooked? In most cases it's because we simply react without taking time to plan and think.
In the absence of body language and tone of voice, the email environment can become a breeding ground for misunderstanding. Before you press "Send," consider putting your email through a stress test by reading it as if you were the recipient. How would you feel if you received this message? Is it easy to understand? Are you motivated to respond?
Effective email communication requires the right type of mindset. It's not unlike a crossword puzzle: you have to find the right words to fit inside the squares. How many times have you witnessed a runaway email trail?
As in any crossword, a single misplaced word can affect all the neighboring squares, throwing you out of kilter and leading you astray from the answers you seek.
Master the elements
Professional email has a clear unambiguous message, a layout that's easy on the eyes and a courteous, compassionate tone. Following are guidelines to optimize each of these elements, improve the quality of your email and move your business forward.
Message and intention: Overflowing inboxes and smart phones that ping as well as ring serve to remind us that quality, not quantity, is what counts in high-speed communication. A clear message has a compelling subject line, well-blocked body copy and a call to action in the closing statement.
According to David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, it's better not to send any message than to send one that's sloppily written or vague. Their book lists the "8 Deadly Sins of Email":
Layout and design: Good design makes the best of email anatomy, beginning with the address line. When it comes to addressing and sending emails, less is more. Shipley and Schwalbe claim that "an individual is much more likely to do as instructed in an email if he or she is the only person in the 'To' line."
- The email that's unbelievably vague. ("Remember to do that thing.")
- The email that insults you so badly, you have to get up from your desk. ("HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE DONE THAT THING?")
- The email that puts you in jail. ("Please tell them that I asked you to sell that thing when it hit $70.")
- The email that's cowardly. ("Here's the thing: You're being let go.")
- The email that won't go away. ("Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: that thing.")
- The email that's so sarcastic you have to get up from your desk. ("Smooth move on that thing. Really smooth.")
- The email that's too casual. ("Hiya! Any word on that admissions thing?")
- The email that's inappropriate. ("Want to come to my hotel room to discuss that thing?")
Immediately below the address line is the "cc:" line, a nod to the old paper days when carbon copies of an original were distributed to stakeholders. In our zeal to keep people posted, we can go a bit overboard with copying to others.
Those who receive hundreds of emails a day would be delighted to be kept on a need-to-know basis by colleagues.
The subject line functions just like an attention-grabbing headline that announces the message and pulls the reader in. Body copy that's blocked into sections with headings and bullet points has a high readability factor. Dense paragraphs and run-on sentences discourage readers who want to scan your message and absorb the main facts.
Etiquette and tone: How many times a day do you read or write, "looking forward," "business opportunity" and "best regards"? These and other pedestrian phrases have wormed their way into our daily correspondence. Emails that offer a fresh approach to familiar topics rise above the sea of competing and similar voices.
Shipley and Schwalbe recommend being "vivid and specific" and even perhaps revealing, without forgetting your relationship with the person to whom you're writing.
On the most elemental level, according to the authors, you should - before setting finger to the keyboard - ask yourself one question (and don't write until you get the answer): "What is my relationship to the person I'm writing?" Then make sure you choose appropriate language.
We've all been taught to say "please" and "thank you," but we should use these words sparingly in email. Shipley and Schwalbe suggest replacing the word "please" with simple phrases like "Remember to include me."
Their rule for "thank you" is to use it to express appreciation after, but not before a favor, since thanking anyone in advance may seem insincere. Is that person supposed to say "you're welcome" in advance?
Beware the abbreviations and casual grammar that have become the hallmark of text messaging. The new chat-speak looks out of place in an email and should never be used in a business email, even in an exchange between peers. Remember, everything you write in an email becomes a permanent public record.
Saving trees, saving money
It's interesting how much emails have in common with clicks. Both have evolved from paper to electronic formats and even appear to be merging as many high-end retailers email credit card receipts to customers who opt out of receiving paper copies.
Signature lines at the bottom of emails exhort us to "go green" by not printing a paper copy of the email. Green is also the color of money, so let's go even greener by improving the quality and decreasing the quantity of our email correspondence - and thinking before we send.
Dale S. Laszig is Vice President of Sales in the United States for Castles Technology Co. Ltd., a manufacturer and global provider of smart card, contactless and POS solutions. She can be reached at 973-930-0331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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