Email dominates our lives, often as much in a personal capacity as a business one. Unfortunately, sometimes the bad habits we’ve developed in our more informal correspondence creeps in to our business messages, and this can have disastrous consequences.
If you pay careful attention, however, you can avoid common gaffes when writing business emails:
1. Know Your Audience… But Do Something with that Knowledge
I came across a great quote by Pablo Picasso the other day: “Action is the foundational key to any success”… The number one rule to any business communication or business model is to know your audience. However, this knowledge is useless unless you actually do something with it.
As much as you can, use any possible information (or educated guesses you can make about your audience) to shape, organize, and influence your content. Choose language that your reader will understand, and explain any terms they may need to know but won’t be familiar with. Focus on relevant information only. Always think about how your reader will feel, and subsequently act, upon receiving your message.
And make sure that by the end of your message, you’ve anticipated any possible questions or objections and included information to answer these before the reader has to respond and ask you, including anything that will help overcome their resistance easily.
2. Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More…
With the sheer volume of email, the kind of multitasking now needed in the business world, and the sort of technology-related short attention spans we now seem to have, people don’t have time to read long messages, nor are they likely to do more than skim even a medium-sized message. So once you’ve written your message, go back and slash it.
Cut out unnecessary information, keep sentences short and simple, reorganize paragraphs for the biggest impact, and place your main ideas at the beginning – at the message, the paragraph, and the sentence level. Get rid of those trite sounding “business” phrases. Get rid of “fillers” like “There are” or “I am writing to tell you” and remember that less is always more in this case.
3. Design an Easy-to-Read Message
Somehow, even though we know what we don’t like in a message, all of those things fly out the window when we write to other people. Nobody has time to spend wading through a long email with no sense of what’s important and what’s less important. White space, paragraphing, bullet points, and numbered lists are your friends, as are headings.
Headings in an email? Yes! Why wouldn’t you use any possible method you can to ensure your message is not only read, but understood, and then acted on? Use bullet points only for your most important information. Use a numbered list for a sequence that must be followed in order.
But don’t overuse themse You want the reader to have a visual sense of what is important, but don’t overwhelm them with so many lists that they can’t focus. If you use headings, ensure they are descriptive and relevant, and don’t use them in a very short email – it’ll just look weird.
Ensure your paragraphs are short and that your message is well spaced, with an easy-to-read font.
4. Proofread Your Document… And Evaluate Its Success
Nothing is more frustrating than trying to read a message that is riddled with grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors, or “text speak”. Ensure you’ve done a proper spellcheck, that you’ve read and re-read the message, and double-check that you’ve included any necessary attachments.
And then ask yourself a few questions:
- Have I actually said what I mean?
- Is my main idea clear?
- Is the next step obvious for the reader?
- Will I get the response I want?
- Is my message easy to understand?
Before you hit send, ensure your message is professional, well-designed, and easy-to-read.
5. Follow Up on Your Message
Weeks go by and tThings slip down the ‘To Do’ list , with no response from your reader… Even the best thought out and written business messages can sit unread, purely because of a lack of time on the part of the audience.
If you are sending an urgent message, then you need to ensure you’ve given the reader a clear deadline for response. Don’t assume that just because someone has a smart phone or iPad that they are constantly checking their email. If you don’t hear from them, then you have to follow up. Also, don’t expect someone to respond within minutes or hours of sending your message – wait until a reasonable amount of time has passed before you check in with them.
And sometimes you just have to pick up the phone… Don’t use email as something to hid behind, use it as you would with any tool – carefully and only for its intended use.