Thursday, September 19, 2013

Email Etiquette: Guidelines and Blunders - Part 2

My discussion of Email Etiquette continues with more guidelines for sending successful email... If you missed Part 1, check it out here.

Email Guideline #2: 

Manage Your Tone

As you start crafting your message, remember to actively manage your email tone.  Because email (like other non-verbal, non-visual communication) will be interpreted solely based on the written words, you need to ensure your intended tone is in sync with the words you write.  Take care to read over the message as you write. Pretend you have no expectations for the contents of the communique.  How would you feel if you were the recipient and you were reading these words for the first time?

In general, the tone of a professional message should be: pleasant, helpful, thankful, apologetic, or sincere.  The tone can certainly shift over the course of the message.  You'll notice that these are, for the most part, "positive" tones.  

I would strongly discourage the use of a negative tone when writing email messages.  If there is a problem that needs to be worked out, and you feel the email thread is degenerating into negativity, move the conversation into another medium.  Talk face-to-face or over the phone.  In-person or verbal interactions are more personal, and in my experience they yield better results for conflict resolution.  Think of atonal as the most negative setting on the "tone spectrum" when composing an email.

When considering your tone, also pay attention to your writing style.  Depending on your familiarity with the recipients, your message can fall somewhere between conversational and formal.  Use complete sentences, and avoid using web/chat shorthand.

I have some specific bones to pick regarding email tone, and I'll include some of these in the "email blunders to avoid" section of this series of posts, but for now, just know:

Sentences like "R u coming l8r?" and "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!?!" have no place in work-related email.

Email Guideline #3:

Start with a Direct Address and a Greeting

Every time you start a new email thread or reply to an email thread for the first time, include a direct address and some sort of greeting.

Base the salutation on the tone of the email.  For somewhat informal communication, use "Hi," "Hello," or a time sensitive greeting like "Good Morning."  Even though it may feel stilted, you can still use "Dear" or "To" if you are writing a formal email.  Add a direct address to your salutation so it's clear who the email is directed to, or from whom you expect a response.  This can be multiple people or a group of people (ie "Good Morning Jim and Stephanie," or "Hi Production Team,").  After the initial salutation, you might also have multiple direct addresses in the body.  For instance, if you have distinct things to say to multiple people, but wanted it to all be included in one message.  There's no need to have another salutation for these additional direct addresses - just move right into the meat (i.e. "Steve, you mentioned had information regarding this...").

This system of direct address adds clarity to long email threads that include large groups of people.  Multiple parties offering information or replying to other's thoughts can easily become confusing.  Unless these conventions are followed, confusion and miscommunication abounds; people lose interest in deciphering the message and thus stop participating in the conversation.

Depending on the context, start the body of your message with a short greeting before moving into the main content.  A quick "I hope you had a nice weekend." or "Happy Friday!" can add a little touch of humanity.  If this is an unsolicited message to an unfamiliar party, you might consider preemptively thanking them for their time, or apologizing for taking a moment away from their work.

As with the rest of the guidelines, use your judgement and size up the particular situation when deciding what's appropriate.

The direct address and greetings are admittedly minor niceties, but they are also the convention.  If you choose to disregard the convention and move right into the body of your email, it can be perceived as brusque.  This may be acceptable if you have a strong preexisting rapport with your recipient, or if you are high in the corporate food chain, but in general it's best to follow these conventions and add a little bit of humanity back into our professional communication.

What are your experiences with work-related email?  If you have stories, comments, or suggestions, feel free to share in the comment section below!

11/18/2013 - UPDATE: Part 3 in this series has also been posted.  You can find it here.

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