I recently sat through a one-way “conversation” where I was told by a seemingly intelligent and highly educated individual that basically, writing is for the birds (and the professionals who should handle it all for everyone else). The premise was, pay a couple of people to take care of writing tasks and save the rest of us from ever having to touch the stuff.
But, we all touch the stuff.
Writing in our digital age is so far beyond stanzas, prose and novels. An area where some of us spend the bulk of our workdays (whether reluctantly or not), is attached inherently to writing…Queue the inbox “ding.”
Email, no matter how much we want it to be, is not a conversation-replacement. It is, fundamentally, a vehicle for the written (typed) word. As such, the idea that only professional writers, or the marketing and communications folks down the hall should bother themselves with language, tone and emotion in writing is a recipe for some seriously ineffective communications at an organization.
What are the chances one of your middle-managers has ever induced unnecessary anxiety by using a colder-than-intended tone in an email to her team about an upcoming staff meeting? Or, have you ever experienced a staff member replying unintentionally curt to a regulator or grant-funder who was seeking additional information on the performance of a program?
In both of these cases, busy leaders were in task mode. Fire off an email, then get back to the work at hand. They didn’t think about how their message could be interpreted by their recipients, and they may not have even read the emails back to themselves before hitting send.
So, communications folks, how about grabbing the mic at the next all-staff meeting and giving a couple of basic tips to the team about email etiquette and efficacy?
Email is THE method of communication we use most frequently, yet its so often left to chance without any formal recommendations and guidelines for a team to follow.
Each professional will have his or her own spin on the topic, so I won’t pretend to have the end-all list of email do’s and don’ts, but here are the top ten I think are important:
1) Identify to yourself the purpose of the email. Are you sharing information, hoping for a reply, or something else? What are you trying to accomplish?
2) Decide if an email is actually the best way to accomplish that goal.
3) Consider your audience and what they want or need in the situation.
4) Do NOT expect confidentiality. Your message may be forwarded, left open on someone’s screen, printed to a shared copier…you just do not have control over who sees it after you hit send.
5) Think about how you would speak to your audience if they were in front of you. There, you’ve got your tone.
6) Keep it as short as possible. Really. Cut the fluff.
7) If you’re asking for something, whether it’s a reply, or a different action, make it explicit. Even bold it, if appropriate.
8) If you’re sharing a document, photo or other file, wherever possible, link to the file in lieu of attaching a document. No one likes downloading, indexing and opening files.
9) Proofread. Grammar mistakes are less obnoxious than unfinished thoughts, dead links and other errors that make the recipient have to work harder than he should in order to figure out what you’re actually trying to say. But, grammar mistakes hurt your credibility, too.
10) Choose an accurate subject. Rarely would this be “Hello.”
Is there anything you would add?
Feel free to steal mine, or devise your own list, but equip your team with at least a couple of useful nuggets. No, not everyone on staff has to be a wonderful writer, but where writing intersects with everyday communications as it does in email, a minimum expectation is fair and wise.
Save yourself and your colleagues from the embarrassment and resulting hangover of an email-gone-wrong. We’ve all done it. And, recovery is a long process.