Tuesday 21 July 2015

How to write emails

This comes from the heart. How many times do you receive an email which, though not clearly stated, is for your information only? You trawl through it and wonder why you bothered. You have been cc’d on a list of people who may or may not have something useful or relevant to say about a particular subject, but every time the subject pops up, so comes another email. You start to ignore them and in doing so you overlook the one email which contained something relevant to you. It happens all the time and it is because of email overkill.   

Or worse – you receive a long-winded email that is so poorly punctuated that you have to read it three times to understand what it is about and what you are supposed to be doing about it. Another time you receive an email with a lengthy and rather confusing account of an item relating to a meeting or to a particular project. You marvel at the trouble that someone has gone to write this missive but you equally wonder why on earth this person could not have picked up the phone and talked the subject through in a quarter of the time they took to construct their email. More to the point the matter could have been resolved immediately, with one short call.

The truth is not everything has to be emailed and the more that is the less people will take any notice. Another hard truth is that emails can lure you away from much more important business. “I’ll just check my emails” is one of those permanently heard sentences and it normally means that the speaker disappears for the rest of the morning.

Since the advent some twenty years ago of emails, these marvels of relatively modern technology have transformed the way people work, mostly for the better. The fact alone of being able to send data-heavy documents in an instant to colleagues, suppliers and clients justifies the use of emails. But like any form of communication, if you use emails too much, improperly, without clarity or particular purpose, you will find that when your name pops into the in-tray it is given scant regard.

The first rule about writing an email is checking whether you need to. If you have a few questions to ask a particular person, why not crack them all in one go – and get the answers into the bargain – with a phone call. It’s also a way of communicating that is friendly, sociable, assuring and quick. You can write an email at the beginning of the day and sit for the rest of the day with no reply – so one piece of the work jigsaw is missing. Multiply this with several emails to which you expect responses and you can find yourself in a senseless waiting game. By comparison, the phone is quicker, chummier and more effective in many instances. Or pop round and do a face-to-face. Takes a moment and shows willing.

Here’s another thing. While it is true that something written down is retrievable and can be offered as proof of a communication, this does not mean that you need to show proof of everything you have written or thought or done by committing it to an email. The sparer you are, the more effective you will be and the more people will take notice.

Another and last thing – writing emails is thought by some to be a bit like a conversation: very easy going, so let’s not worry too much about punctuation or grammar. But the more people slip into this slightly slapdash approach the more possible it is to confuse your audience or to hit the wrong note, usually without any idea that you might have done so.

Just think about tone for a moment. When you talk directly to someone your tone, your mannerisms, the inflections in your voice, the look in your eye can all be picked up by your interlocutor. Together, these factors frame the tone of the discussion. Take away the visual aspect and just talk on the phone and you can still set the tone of the communication in the way you speak. But when you write a direct message be aware that it is all too easy to adopt a position that you may think is friendly, easy and appropriate yet your audience might read it an entirely different way.

My argument is that good writing – simple, direct, clear, spare and to the point – works timelessly on your behalf. The more you do it and the more you resolve to stick to good practice and high standards of writing, the likelier you will be to make emails work for you.