Writing a good email is a cross between writing a thoughtful letter long-hand and posting something on Twitter. It needs to be descriptive, but brief enough to capture the perpetually distracted, Youtube-connected, reader. Any leader who has asked a group of blank stares if they “read my email” know it’s hard to write the perfectly weighted email. Leaders also need to make sure they strike the right tone in their messages. Criticisms can turn into demoralizing insults and orders can turn into suggestions with wrong or misplaced phrasing. Worse, email can get leaders into trouble because they last forever and email systems have the unfortunate “reply to all” option.
Leaders need to make sure they master the following email survival guide so they don’t bore their audience onto Youtube or get into trouble with HR.
1. Brevity is the Soul of Email: T.S. Eliot wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It takes time to write lean prose, but it needs to be done if you want to command a reader’s attention. It’s easy to write dense paragraphs and flowing letters. It takes more thought and patience to keep messages short and direct. Practice brevity, break up paragraphs, and ask yourself, “Would I read this?”
2. Is it important? In Walden, Henry David Thoreau remarked, “I have received no more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.” While we can only imagine what Thoreau would have thought about email, his truculent attitude can teach us something. Don’t write an email unless it’s important. People won’t read your serious message if it’s surrounded by dozens of your throw-away musings. If you just want to beat ideas around pick up the phone or chat online.
3. You’re Sending a Postcard: Any email you write must be considered public. There is no such thing as a private email. Company email accounts can be easily read by third parties and sent messages should be considered immortal in other people’s in-boxes. As the Chinese proverb says, “Don’t write a letter in anger.” Keep your emails emotion free. You don’t want a particular passionate, curse-heavy, email circulating around after you get a promotion or switch jobs. You don’t want to be this guy.
4. Clear Subject: Clear subject lines are crucial. They make your message clear and help people file your messages appropriately. Poorly composed subject lines will get deleted and emails with no subject at all will get lost in the shuffle and be a pain to categorize.
5. Grammar Police: Leadership, some argue, is setting an example worth following. Write grammatically correct emails in order to set the bar of written communication at your office. You don’t want people emulating your sloppy style to clients, etc.
6. Civility Lives: Just because you are on a computer doesn’t mean you no longer have to exercise basic social graces. Say “thank-you” when needed and “please” when necessary.
7. Avoid Bcc: When you Bcc someone you want to secretly send a copy of a message you sent to somebody else. The problem is the person you secretly forwarded might blow your cover accidentally by replying to everyone in the email chain. If that happens you are going to have to do damage control. No one wants to do damage control.
8. You’re Not Woody Allen: Joking is fun and can lighten the mood, but avoid them in emails. Jokes can easily be misread. What might be funny to you can injure someone else. Let your inner-comedian out after work with friends. Don’t expect (or demand) a warm, ready-for-jokes, atmosphere at work.
Picture Credit: Smithsonian