At Scott Bradbury we’re fascinated by accuracy. And error. On my computer, I have a folder where I store examples of the mistakes I encounter as I go about my work. Each week, without fail, my email in-box is a little treasure trove of them. And I dutifully add them to my ‘hoard’. In this month’s featured short article, Catherine de Salvo explores tips for writing accurate and effective email messages.
How many mistakes did you spot in your in-box this week? And how many did you make in your own email messages? (And that’s just counting the ones you know about!)
This week, I received an email from a customer advising:
Please note I don’t work on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s.
And the week before, I received an email from an exhibition company urging me to attend this year’s event. Only it had used last year’s promotional copy and forgotten to update the date details!
I could go on and on, but I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of mistakes in your own in-box.
I must stress that I, like all human beings, make mistakes too. I don’t collect these error examples with a warped sense of schadenfreude. I keep them because they illustrate the actual mistakes being made by people working in all sectors of our economy. They provide a useful background to our accuracy skills research and, as in the case of our new video ‘Preventing Mistakes in Your Emails’, they provide ideas for creating video-based resources.
Let’s take a closer look at email communication specifically.
The problem with email
Email is part of our everyday working lives. It is a quick and convenient form of communication. But it comes with significant disadvantages too. Here are just a few:
- Writers of emails are often in a hurry and working under pressure
- We receive so many email messages it’s easy for a message to be overlooked
- Emails are easily deleted and are a disposable form of communication
- It’s tempting to try to say too much and to cover too many topics in one message
- Email threads can become long and rambling, so the meaning becomes lost
- Email threads get longer and longer and contain information that some recipients are not meant to see!
- Emails are a big distraction in the workplace
- Recipients don't read emails properly.
Given that list, it’s a wonder we want to use email at all! But email is so useful its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. We use it a lot. But it’s our responsibility to do so accurately and effectively.
Mistakes waste time. Ambiguity leads to confusion. And miscommunication can damage relationships and annoy people. Mistakes make you (and your organisation) look sloppy and unprofessional.
We need to write email messages that:
- reach the intended recipients
- use an appropriate tone for the intended audience
- convey your message succinctly
- are accurately written, even when working under pressure.
When we achieve this, we save time, improve our productivity (and that of other people), and we make a positive impression.
Some practical tips
So how do we do it?
Here are a few practical tips to use each time you write and send an email:
- Look for the mistakes!
It’s tempting to dash off a message and click ‘send’. But always review your message first. If you proactively look for errors, you will find them.
- Use a structured checking process
Don’t just re-read your message because you’ll read it in the same mindset as when you wrote it. Take a structured approach, checking key elements in turn. For example, make sure the recipient’s name in the email address and the name in the salutation are spelled correctly and consistently.
- Stick to the point
Keep your message concise and cover only one topic per message. Make sure your brevity doesn’t make your message sound unfriendly.
- Use simple words and short sentences
Clear, easy-to-understand words and short, unambiguous sentences work well. Don’t confuse the message with unnecessary waffle.
- Be Present-minded
Think beyond the confines of the email text. How will your message be received? What are the repercussions? Is email appropriate for conveying this particular message? Should you include the whole email thread?
Further support and information
Why not watch this month’s featured new video ‘Preventing Mistakes in Your Emails’? This short video illustrates examples of how to write and check messages and introduces the ABC of effective emails. The video is available to view throughout February 2020 at the WATCH & GO home page and afterwards by request.
And if you’re interested in exploring how to improve all types of written communication within your organisation, including email, ask about our Accurate Written Communication in-house workshop and visit our accuracy skills website.
About WATCH & GO® videos
WATCH & GO® videos show people how to perform better at work by illustrating practical phrases and key behaviours in just a few minutes. There are around 70 titles, each dealing with a different management topic or ‘tricky’ situation. Learners simply ‘watch’ and ‘go’ to manage everyday situations at work.
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