I get a lot of email. And a lot of that email reflects pretty poorly on the sender.
Some of the emails I receive wouldn’t even make the cut as amateur ransom notes. They are often laden with misspellings or typos. Frequently they fail to make a succinct point. They routinely seem to be disorganized thoughts. And they regularly get sent without the author paying enough attention to important details that would have eliminated the need for the email or at least changed its content.
It seems to me there are several fundamental causes for poor email:
1. Mobile devices. I love being able to email while I’m on the go. But it leads all of us to take shortcuts that result in less than ideal messages. We overuse abbreviations and slang. We forgo proper capitalization and punctuation. To make up for this, many of us (myself included) include an automatic disclaimer in the email signature confessing to having sent from a mobile device, hoping that begs forgiveness in advance from the recipient for anything that feels as if a two year old may have intercepted my email account.
2. Atrocious writing skills. Far too many professionals lack the ability to write properly. Not a week goes by that I am not stunned by the utter lack of writing skill possessed by someone sending me an email. I’m not talking about the ability to write an artful speech, a compelling editorial, or a riveting novel. I just want people to be able to write using a rough approximation of correct grammar, spelling, and composition.
3. Carelessness. Inattention to detail turns even good emails into bad ones. When failing to perform rudimentary proofreading, an email author leaves the impression of not caring about the recipient. It takes but a few seconds to scan a typical email to ensure it doesn’t have red squiggly lines under key words and that the sentences read in a coherent fashion.
4. Laziness. Many of the emails in my inbox could be eliminated if the sender took a moment to even briefly research something before hitting send. Questions could be answered. Points could be made more clear. And the email could be made more relevant to the recipient.
5. A rush to judgment. Don’t forward an article without reading and understanding it. Don’t hit reply with a bombastic or indignant response without taking time to digest the meaning and purpose of the original email.
6. Under-utilization of technology. Your email program likely has a spell checker. It may even perform grammar checks. Take advantage of these tools. There’s no good excuse for most typos these days given the amount of technology we have built into our daily tools to save even the worst writer from himself.
7. Over-reliance on technology. The flip side to technology is that it can make bad writers worse — and even make good writers look bad. If one relies purely on technology to solve grammar and spelling issues, one will never understand the proper way to write. In addition, some modern “auto-correction” features do their level best to butcher even the best prose. I have found myself so frustrated by the bizarre auto-correction functionality of my iPhone that I have turned it off periodically because I would prefer to manually edit my fat-fingered typos (or even leave them in place!) rather than accept “corrections” that completely distort my original meaning (sometimes in unintentionally embarrassing ways!).
8. Misunderstanding the audience. When you write — an email or anything else — it is important to understand who the reader will be. If your text is not tailored to that audience, your message will likely fall flat. If you’re pitching a story, know what the recipient likes to write about or report on. If you’re asking for something from a supervisor, understand what makes them tick. If you want to sell something, know the needs of your target.
9. Lack of respect. All too often emails end up coming across as snide and sarcastic not because of actual writing skills, but because of actual intent. The disrespect may be intentional or it may be a result of subconscious thought, but either way it is important to understand that the email reflects on the sender. By all means be brief and direct, but make sure you demonstrate respect.
10. The misconception that “it’s just email.” I frequently hear people dismiss poorly composed email as insignificant. After all, “it’s just email.” Baloney. In today’s business environment your emails are your most frequent means of communication with your supervisor, direct reports, colleagues, prospects, clients, vendors, and more. The impression that your email leaves does not reflect on the devices you use, but on you personally. Remember that the next time you hit “send.”
We’re all guilty of some of these email shortcomings from time to time. There are occasions where I get lazy and my email looks a bit more like something written by e.e. cummings than someone who actually understands where to find the shift key. And we all do things in a rush on occasion.
The better your email quality, the better it reflects on you. If you don’t fancy yourself a good writer, take the time to improve that skill. The ability to write clearly and succinctly will take you farther in your career than your colleagues who still can’t string words together properly — in email or otherwise.