In my last blogpost, I explored the significance of clear subject headers and the differences between relationship-oriented and task-oriented email writers. I also looked at the importance of understanding that writing styles are not confined to the ‘black and white’ categories of ‘formal emails’ and ‘informal emails’ but instead could contain a array of features of what might have been deemed suitable for a formal, a semi-formal or formal email. This means that in order to be effective communicators, we would need to adapt and adjust our writing styles when necessary to fit the target reader and the situation.
Based on a webinar I wrote and delivered on behalf of York Associates for a large international engineering firm, here are five more tips on how we can communicate via email effectively. (I start on point number four so as to continue on from the three points in my last post)
4. Make your message clear
Sending a rambling email with multiple requests embedded in long sentences and long paragraphs could risk your message being lost. Here are some suggestions as to how you can keep your message clear:
- Stick with one message per email. If you need to say several things on different topics, write separate emails.
- Keep your message focused.
- KISS – Keep It Short and Simple
- State action points
- Structure your emails by using short paragraphs and bullet points.
Consider this email structure:
- Greet the reader
- Explain your reason for writing
“I’m writing to ask for more information about our accommodation in Cordoba.”
- State further actions
“Do you think you could send me details of the floor plan and the facilities available by Friday the 16th June?”
- Polite close
“Thanks very much. Best regards, Grace.”
5. Be aware of the potential for miscommunication
An email sent on Monday 5th June, inviting the receiver to an event ‘next Friday’ might be interpreted in different ways.
To some, ‘next Friday’ might mean the Friday of that same week i.e. 9th June.
To others, ‘next Friday’ means the Friday of next week (as opposed to ‘this Friday’), i.e.16th June.
There is danger in assuming that what you mean is how it is being understood. The lack of non-linguistic like gestures and para-linguistic features like intonation means that emails are more easily misunderstood. If in doubt, ask questions and clarify before reacting.
6. Re-read before sending
The instantaneous convenience that email provides can sometimes also be our downfall. A perceived criticism or attack could trigger an emotional response that is sent before careful consideration.
Ensure that you:
- Re-read the received email and try to consider the writer’s possible positive intentions. Think about the circumstances that writer is under and the reasons for writing that email.
- Consider the validity of what is being said.
- Avoid responding emotionally.
- Avoid immediately escalating the situation (e.g. by CC-ing someone higher up in the food chain) before attempting to clarify and resolve the situation yourself.
Before you send an email, re-read your email to ensure that you:
- Check your tone – Are you using too many capital letters (which look like you are shouting)? Are you using too many exclamation marks?
- Check your message – Is your message clear? Is the information accurate? Be wary of ‘cut-and-paste’ errors.
- Check your spelling and grammar – too many spelling and grammatical mistakes could not only make you appear careless, but could also cause misunderstandings. Use a spell-check function to help you if necessary.
7. Save emails that contain useful phrases
Create a folder in your email account and call it ‘Useful English Emails’. If you receive emails in English that contain useful language, save them in this folder, and go to them when you’re writing an email and unsure of how to say something.
8. Communicate about communicating
Don’t feel like you have to remain in the dark constantly wondering if your emails are understood the right way and if your style is too abrupt. Ask for feedback about your emails. Find out if your style is appropriate, if you are too direct, if you are CC-ing the right people, etc. Have an open conversation about the way you communicate, and this can not only show a willingness to adapt and change, but also a desire to communicate more effectively.
‘The Illusion of Transparency’ is a phenomenon where we overestimate how much other people can understand our mental state. We know what we mean, and we expect that others do too. In actual fact, this isn’t always the case. And when using a channel like email, where non-verbal cues are not present, we need to realize that other parties do not always communicate and see things as we do. There are language differences, cultural differences, and differences in personal style at play.
So it is vital that we give others a wider berth and clarify situations before reacting, consider our emotional responses and give ourselves time before responding, reflect on the way we communicate via email, and strive towards being clear, concise and respectful.
These are the skills that we need to be training our students in when it comes to email writing.