Jobs and the Future of Work

11 tips for writing better work emails

David Peck
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Executive Presence (EP) is a hot topic from cubicle to corner office. Reading the room plus minding your body language, and having a dash of swagger are key ingredients; but how do you demonstrate EP—and certainly avoid diminishing it—on email? After all, the majority of our work-related communication involves hitting SEND.

In fact, based on my experience coaching many executives, EP-busting email habits are rampant. Yet with a few simple practices, and by breaking a few habits, you can use email as an instrument of greater influence.

Coaching Tips and 11 Practices: It’s not just what you say, but how you say it

When was the last time you re-read a sampling of your sent email to assess its impact on your colleagues or team? In the heat of the moment, you may have hit “send” once or twice and thought better of it thereafter, or “in the interest of time” you may not have thought quite enough about how you were communicating versus just get it out there and hit send.

Here’s an experiment that some of my clients have tried, and I know works. Carefully select a sample of, say, 20 of your sent emails. Make sure they represent both smooth and stressful times, and a spectrum of people. As you carefully reread your sample, start to reinforce the following tips in your mind:

1. Don’t blow off your subject line

Take the time to write a subject line that gets the correct attention and priority. Your email lands on long lists, and your most important recipients don’t have time to click more deeply into your meaning. Be creatively concise on the headline and, if appropriate, time frame. “Project X Phase 2 Needs Your Approval by 5/15” works better than “Project X Follow Up.”

2. Don’t bury the lead

Once you have their attention with your effective subject line, if it takes more than a sentence or two to decipher importance and required action, you’ve buried the lead, and your email EP along with it. Why they should care and what you want from them should be right up front.

3. Be brief — very brief

If you need to write more than a few paragraphs, you’ve missed a conversation that needs to happen. Keep your emails short and sweet. If you can’t, then start an IM, pick up the phone, or go face to face.

4. Don’t confuse an email chain with a conversation

A string of emails and replies shouldn’t be considered a substitute for a conversation, brainstorming session, or a decision-making process. It’s a series of “tells” with varying lag times that often lead to unnecessary churn. Voice to voice, face to face, and IM are much better forums for important interactions.

5. Don’t use email to confront, vent or process

Lasting EP problems spring from this mistake. As a therapist might say, “Write the letter and don’t send it.” Email isn’t the place for processing an issue, venting, or confronting. Since email subtracts nuance and body language needed for deeper understanding, it makes thorny issues thornier.

6. Follow the New York Times rule

You’ve heard this one before — now believe it: Email is barely communication. It’s certainly not a forum for risky disclosure. As your General Counsel should say: Don’t put anything in email today you wouldn’t want to read in the New York Times tomorrow. All emails are or can be read by others.

7. Check your grammar, spelling and avoid text-speak in emails

EP degrades with poor quality communication. Check your spelling. Read it out loud. Look for words spelled correctly but in the wrong place, such as “here” versus “hear” or “affect” versus “effect” or “your” versus “you’re.” Using text-speak like “ure” and “btw” and “LOL,” even when sending from your smartphone, degrades your EP. Double-check these before sending.

8. Read the message you received carefully before sending your reply

Too many people scan and reply in a rush, and miss the point. Before replying to a message, read it twice. Think. Prioritize. THEN BEFORE SENDING, read the original email and your reply together. If you don’t have time for that, wait until you do, or connect with the recipient by another method.

9. Don’t be lazy about forwarding emails

We’ve all forwarded emails without double-checking what lurks below, earlier in the chain. Please scroll all the way down, and read the full chain. Delete irrelevant, outdated, or recipient-inappropriate stuff.

10. Check and double-check recipients

Avoid sending the wrong thing to the wrong person. Before clicking SEND, check and double-check your recipients. This may seem obvious, but is a step too often overlooked.

11. Be calm about response time

When you send follow-up emails too shortly following the original (e.g., “did you have a chance to review my email from earlier today?”) you’re degrading your EP, not to mention being an e-stalker. If you’re going to need a response that quickly, then don’t use email in the first place.

As suggested above, self-test a sample of your previous sent email from time to time. What do you need to change? Answer that, and you can make email a vehicle to enhance, rather than hinder, your communication, influence, and build your own EP.

Published in collaboration with LinkedIn

Author: David Peck is an Executive Coach & Global Coaching Firm Principal.

Image: A woman uses a computer mouse. REUTERS/Catherine Benson.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFinancial and Monetary SystemsBusiness
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