Have you ever received an email, or read a product description, then just sat back and said “huh?” Double speak, indirect language, million dollar words, and generally bad business writing is all too common.
I’m sure you have your own examples, but here are a couple of my favorites:
“Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is.”
“It is the opinion of the group assembled for the purpose of determining a probability of the likelihood of the meteorological-related results and outcome for the period encompassing the next working day that the odds of precipitation in the near-term are positive and reasonably expected.”
Author and blogger Seth Godin said it best in an article last year. What is the simple way to get better at business writing? Don’t do business writing. What he means is that we should write more like we talk: naturally, plainly, and so that our readers can easily understand exactly what we are trying to say.
This means your emails should:
- Have fewer words
- Have shorter words
- Make it obvious what your main point is by putting it right up front
When Should You Write an Email?
When email became prevalent in modern business, it had so much promise. It reduced printed paper. It is near real-time communication and allows us to reach thousands or even millions with the click of the send button. It allows distributed teams to collaborate in ways that would have been virtually impossible 25 years ago. Just because emails are easy to send doesn’t mean they are always the best way to communicate. Emails are most appropriate for:
- The broadcast of information to a group where a discussion is not required (one way flow). This could be a list of topics for a meeting, a document for review, or a summary of policy change or business direction. This is when email is at its best: one to many communication that doesn’t require a debate.
- Asking a question that is non-urgent, non-sensitive, and non-emotional. The sort of email you would send if you were taking a poll.
- Delegation of a specific task
When should you not send that email?
- When a discussion is required to resolve an issue. While you might use email to present the topic to a small group in advance of a meeting (see #1 above), the discussion itself should not be held in email.
- When you need to share bad news. The release is going to be late. The company had a bad quarter and layoffs are coming.
- When you are emotional. Angry, upset, afraid. Sit on it. Odds are even after you’ve calmed down, a face to face conversation or phone call will be more effective.
Let’s assume you’ve decided that you need to send that email. Here are some specific tips:
- Take the time to ensure that your subject line accurately reflects the contents and nature of your email. This may require you to re-write the subject line when forwarding or replying.
- Use the CC: field sparingly. Ask yourself: am I cc’ing this person because they need to see it, or is it for self-promotion or protection (“CYA”)?
- Do not overuse the high priority option. If you frequently tag emails as “high priority”, your audience will become de-sensitized. If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent!
- Do not ask your email client to recall a message (I’m looking at you Outlook). It doesn’t work. Mobile devices in general do not support this feature, and you’ll just end up confusing the recipients. If you feel compelled to make a correction, just reply/all and top post a brief correction.
- Avoid the BCC: field. If you want to silently inform someone one else of an email you sent, forward the email you sent to them directly as an FYI. Folks that are blind copied on an email can reply/all and therefore indirectly let the original recipients know that there were BCCs on the email. One notable exception: when you are sending a group email and don’t want to disclose any recipients, and want to avoid reply/all syndrome. In this case, email with TO: line to yourself and put the recipients on the BCC line.
- Remember that your work email is the property of the company you work for. Anything you’ve ever sent or received–even if you’ve deleted it–could potentially be retrieved from the system at any time.
- Email lives forever, is easy to spread and can easily show up in discovery for a lawsuit. If a sensitive matter involving security, privacy, or contractual matters is at hand – discuss in person or over the phone.
Disagree with my tips? Have a favorite tip you’d like to share? Leave a comment below.