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Sending the Right Message

January 25, 2011

E-mail is a flawed communication medium – just like all the rest. Like a cell-phone call or an exchange of morse code, an e-mail conversation has its own unique set of shortcomings and potential pitfalls. The problem with e-mail is that it’s only part of the story. Unlike a phone conversation or an in-person meeting, the reader’s only clues about your feelings come in the words you type. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation. We’ve all been part of e-mail exchanges that start with a misunderstanding and spiral down from there. There’s hope for the medium though. It starts with writing to minimize misinterpretation.

1. Short is good. Too short is dangerous.
Sure, you’re overworked. You’re answering a lot of e-mails. Why not keep your replies as minimal as possible? Mainly because they’re going to be read by a human. And very often, we humans interpret minimally worded answers as an indicator of dissatisfaction. It’s OK to be concise but only if you can do it without coming off terse.

2. Season With Greetings
It’s tempting, especially with e-mail replies, to launch right into your message without an introductory greeting. While it saves typing, omitting the “Hi Dave:” or the “Thanks for your e-mail” also makes the reply less personal. Depending on what you have to say next, this may not make too much of a difference in the perceived tone of the message. But especially if what follows is bad news, the opening greeting can help soften the blow and make you seem like a partner, even if you’re saying something the recipient doesn’t want to hear.

3. Beware of Subjectivity
There’s a reason e-mail marketers spend years fine tuning their subject lines. The subject is the first impression that will shape the emotions and expectations the reader brings to your e-mail. Don’t blow it with your first words. Messages whose subjects sound like demands will be read as such, even if you’re carful with your prose in the body of the message.

4. Easy on the Opinion
To minimize negative interpretation, minimize the negatives. Assume that everything you write will be read as a glass half-empty. Dissatisfaction, negative opinions, and above, all indignation, should be kept to a minimum and worded as gingerly as possible. You can’t control how your e-mail will be interpreted but you can minimize the triggers likely to fire off negative assumptions from the reader.

5. Re-read. Re-read Again.
We all type fast. Or try to. Sometimes that means what’s in our heads doesn’t make it to the screen. Omitting a word, letting spell-check replace a misspelling, or funking up your phrasing can all happen without warning. The only way to catch these mistakes is to re-read your message. It’s time consuming. But one unfortunate typo can change the tone, or the meaning of your message. So, re-read. And if it’s really important, have somebody else read it too.


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