Story courtesy of Makeuseof.com
By Ryan Dube
Emails are tough. It is really hard to get across what you really want to say in an email, and half the time people will almost always misunderstand you. A lot of the problem comes down to the fact that the people you’re writing to can’t see your face. They can’t see the smile on your face, and you can’t see the expression on their face – the natural human ability to understand the emotion in words through facial expression is completely void in an email.
So, what can replace facial expression and tone of voice? How do you effectively get your message across without getting all of your friends or everyone in the office royally ticked off at you?
Writer Peter Drucker once wrote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” I would go one step further than that, and say that the most important thing in sending an email is clarifying just enough so that the recipient doesn’t hear what isn’t said. In fact, what causes most problems with email communication is when the person receiving the email interprets all sorts of terrible things that you’ve implied, even when you’ve only written a single line.
This is what leads to hate and discontent. This is what builds resentment. This is why the guy across the table at the morning meeting is glaring at you, because you had cc’d him on an email that you sent out yesterday afternoon, and he took it as a personal attack:
1. Sending a Novel
One of my first guilty sins when I first started working as an engineer was that I would almost always write emails that stretched out across three or four paragraphs. The reason was not only because I can type pretty fast, but because I always felt like if I left any details out, people wouldn’t really understand what I was talking about. That may be true to some degree – and we’ll get to emails that are too-brief in a minute – but there’s something to be said for simplicity.
When you write such complicated emails, you are failing to get your message across in a variety of ways. First, the fact that you wrote so much implies to the person that you have little respect for their time, and if you do it too often you’re bound to get them annoyed. Second, while a 500 word email organized into several paragraphs makes plenty of sense to you, you’re most likely confusing everyone – and giving them a migraine.
If you’re a wordsmith and tend to over-write, then always go back and get to work on “chopping up” those sentences. Come up with new and creative ways to shorten them, or maybe you can remove them entirely. Maybe you’re offering far too much information. Tell people what they need to know, not what you want them to know you know. You know?
2. Sending a Two-Word Email
The opposite offense to the novel email is the one or two word emails that doesn’t explain anything at all. It’s akin to when I ask my kids at the dinner table, “So how was your day?” After a moment, a reluctant answer, “Fine.” Not sure why I even bother, I press on. ”What did you do, anything fun?” The inevitable answer, “No, not really.”
I honestly don’t understand why some people even bother with using email. If you’re lucky, an email from this person will contain a single full sentence. If you’re unlucky, the person will be asking you to do something for them, but not bothering to explain exactly what they want you to do. It’s sort of like sending out a distress message over a radio when you’re lost in the middle of the wilderness, and failing to inform the rescue crew what your coordinates are.
It’s extremely frustrating, because people have to struggle to understand what on earth you’re talking about. Even worse, you may actually force them to waste time responding to your email, only to ask you to elaborate a little bit more.
I suspect that most people with this problem write such short emails because typing is such a painstaking exercise. Not everyone can type over 60 to 70 words a minute, so you do have to have a little sympathy for this group.
3. Sending a Mass Email Meant For One Person
Do you really want to tick people off? Send a mass email to everyone in your office simply to reprimand a single person for something they did wrong. I call this the “public humiliation” email. Usually, everyone in the office may already know that a particular person made a mistake, but the manager can’t leave it alone. So, they send out a mass email to everyone explaining in great and excruciating detail why a particular action is so wrong to do, or why that particular mistake is so bad.
I have to admit that in some of my management roles in the past, I slipped into this behavior. I’ve seen other colleagues of mine do it as well. It’s an easy mistake to make, because you may actually want to make sure that everyone else you’re managing doesn’t make the same mistake. The reality is that if everyone already knows about it, the person that made the mistake is humiliated. If they don’t know about it, everyone is confused and unsure whether or not you’re talking about them.
Make it simple – talk about the specific problem with the person that made the mistake. Then, if you feel it’s important enough for everyone, send a notice but make it sound as though it is just a general “FYI” sent down from higher management – this removes the accusatory tone and makes it less personal.
4. Using Dramatic Adverbs
Another very common behavior in emails – usually from people that are very passionate about their work in general, or about a specific project that is under discussion. That behavior is the overuse of very dramatic adverbs. Sentences like, “That design is just horribly wrong” or “That approach is painfully vague” only serve to introduce emotion into the discussion.
When you look at those sentences without the adverbs, you can see how much more businesslike – and much less antagonistic – they are. Otherwise, you just come across like an over-dramatic, spoiled brat.
Try it without the adverbs. That design is wrong. That approach is vague.
It may not please the recipient – but it also doesn’t attack them and set them on the defensive. It’s more professional, and you might actually be able to pass yourself off as a mature adult, even when you’re disagreeing with someone.
5. Overusing Passive Voice
It actually wasn’t until late in my writing career that I really, truly learned about and understood the passive voice. The problem with learning about it, is that you start seeing it everywhere. One of the most prevalent uses of passive voice is in email, because the passive voice allows a person to separate themselves from an action.
Instead of saying, “I drove the client to the airport”, which lays the responsibility directly upon your shoulders, you might instead write, “The client was taken to the airport.”
This is a behavior common among people that are nervous about taking responsibility for just about anything, because if anything goes wrong, they don’t want to be blamed. These are the same people that complain when the risk-takers – the ones that take responsibility for getting things done – get recognition or promotions. The truth is, people see through the passive voice in emails. If you’ve finished a task or accomplished a goal, don’t be afraid to take credit!
6. Patting Yourself On The Back
Oddly enough, the opposite extreme of the folks who use passive voice in email all the time, are the people that almost always write about everything in first person. Reading their emails, you would think that a project wasn’t a group effort, it was a personal accomplishment. You would think that the person sending the email did absolutely all of the work!
How do you recognize these emails? Count the occurrences of the word “I”.
Reading an email from this type of person, it’s clear that they feel the entire world revolves around them, and that everyone should be giving them constant kudos for all of the work they’ve single-handedly accomplished. These emails invariably leave teammates feeling dejected and completely unappreciated. This approach is the fast-track to anger and isolation from your peers.
I’m sure there are lots of other types of emails that really annoy and offend people. I bet you have your own list too! What sorts of emails really set you off? Which types are your pet peeves? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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