Given the avalanche of email we receive each year — 121 messages per day, on average — it’s no wonder that we have become somewhat desensitized to its impact on our professional brand. We’ll spend hours polishing our LinkedIn profiles and revising our résumés, but hastily hit send on an unintelligible missive simply because we’re in a rush. “Sent from my device, please overlook typos” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for shoddy communications.
Have you ever thought about the brand you’re conveying through your emails? You should. Every email you send affects your professional reputation, or brand. Don’t make these all-too-common mistakes in your communication:
Your emails are too long for anyone to digest. Are your messages typically the length of all 12 installments of Crime and Punishment? Do you include all the backstory a reader could ever want to know? While context is critical to guiding the reader’s interpretations, remember that what they need to know is inevitably a subset of everything you could tell them. Given that the adult attention span is a mere eight seconds, it’s important to make every moment count. Get to the point.
You’re including way too many people. Do your Cc habits ensure that a cast of thousands is in the loop? If so, ask yourself who is truly the essential audience for the message. In many organizations, overuse of Cc reflects a political culture in which people cover their tracks by overinclusion. Remember that each message you send contributes to everyone’s inbox, including your own, especially when one of your recipients decides to Reply All.
You’re dashing off incomplete thoughts. While there’s a lot to be said for brevity, there’s a big difference between being concise and being terse. Do you find yourself shooting off one-liners that pick up in the middle of a thought without considering whether the reader can follow the thread? Do you end up with a high volume of clarifying questions in response to your messages? If so, that’s a clue that your emails need more composition and more context.
You’re burying the lede. It shouldn’t take a symbologist to find the important message hidden in your email. Make sure your readers know what the ask is and why they should care about responding. Despite our compulsive relationship with it, responding to email is not a sacred duty. If you want your readers to digest your message, and perhaps even take action on it, make it easy for them to do so.
When it comes to composing an email, I think we could all take a cue from Mark Twain’s writing style: He developed a unique and memorable voice, relentlessly edited himself, and was easy to understand. As he said, “Anybody can have ideas — the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” Take the time to truly craft your messages, and you’ll find that your results improve accordingly. Sacrifice quantity for quality. Not every email merits your attention.
However, the one characteristic of Twain’s brand that I wouldn’t emulate is his being a curmudgeon. We already have a negativity bias toward email messages. As has been demonstrated in the emerging field of social neuroscience, without the social cues — voice tone, facial expression, and physical gestures — that we rely on to interpret communication, we are prone to conclude the worst. Don’t skip the niceties, or your audience may assume a message that wasn’t intended, and you’ll be forced to do damage control.
The next time you start to write an email, follow a few rules:
Use an intuitive subject line that clearly states the purpose of the message. Bonus points if you include a header, e.g., [ACTION] or [INFORM], that helps the reader understand the expected response.
Provide a clearly stated request right at the beginning of your email in case your audience fails to read beyond the preview pane. At least you’ll increase the chances that people will understand the essence of your message.
Bold the names of anyone who’s been assigned a task or asked a question in the body of the email to increase the likelihood of it getting the needed attention.
Take the time to be nice. It will help your audience truly hear what you intended to say.
The next time you’re in your email account, take a closer look at your sent folder. Everything you need to know about your email brand is contained within. If you don’t like what you see, tomorrow is another day. There’s always another chance to shape your email reputation.
By Shani Harmon, HBR