11 email mistakes you really shouldn’t make

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Is email the best, most efficient way of communicating or is it a heavy encumbrance that stops us for talking to each other? Whatever you think of it, email is part of the business world and you’d be wise to avoid these email mistakes…

How many emails do you produce each day? And how many of them are polite, effective and easy to read? If you’ve ever had concerns about your ability to write winning emails, check this list to ensure you’re not making some of the common mistakes that undo a surprising number of communicators.

1 – You pay too little attention to the subject line. This includes a list of sins such as…

  • Using a vague or non-specific line (“It’s almost here!”). Instead, say exactly what your email is about: “XYZ Co. releases new baby monitor.”
  • Simply “replying” to a previously existing subject line without changing it, particularly if the initiating email has a bad subject line. So, instead of: “April 28 event gives you a chance to party” change the subject line to what you’re writing about: “I can’t [or can] attend April 28 event.”
  • Writing a line that’s wonderfully specific but way too long. The email delivery company MailChimp has analyzed 200 million real subject lines and found that 28 to 39 characters is the optimal length for the best open rates. Exceed 39 characters at your peril!
  • Leaving the subject line blank. A subject line is like a headline: no news site would ever publish stories without headlines and you shouldn’t send out emails without them either. Effective ones tell your readers what to expect. They also help them decide whether they want to even open the missive. So spend at least as much effort on the subject line as you do the email.

2 – You use ALL CAPS or only lower case or too many exclamation points. This is so patently wrong-headed, I hope you’re not doing it. But let me explain why it doesn’t work. Using CAPS makes it look as though you’re shouting. No one likes being shouted at. Very occasionally, you can cap one word for emphasis but it’s often better to use italics. (Just don’t use italics for more than a couple of words. They’re significantly harder to read.) Lower case looks like laziness — you couldn’t be bothered to use the “shift” key when you were writing. This will make the reader feel disrespected. (Even though I typically sign my own first name in lower case — it’s my visual “signature” — I use regular upper and lower case for everything else.) Using too many explanation points makes you look overly excited and untrustworthy. Worse, if the item isn’t exciting to everyone in your audience — eg. “VP wins leadership award!” — the exclamation point makes you look deluded.

3 – You use paragraphs that are too long, or worse, no paragraphs at all. Most people scan email very quickly and feel irritated if the message looks daunting or overwhelming. Do your readers a favour and give them super short paragraphs with a line of blank space between each one. The sea of white (I think of it as a life-preserver, giving eyes a comfortable place to rest) will make your message look much less frightening and a whole lot easier to read.

4 – You send your emails to too many people. Think hard before you ever use the “reply all” button. I think it should be used as infrequently as the nuclear red phone in the White House. Most people don’t need all that much information from that many people. Just this week, a colleague of mine sent an RSVP to a surprise baby shower using “reply all.” Sadly, the young mom-to-be was a member of the “group” list so the shower is no longer a surprise.

5 – You don’t respond in a timely fashion. Everyone perceives email to be really fast so if people don’t get a response within 24 hours (or faster) they feel irritated and disrespected. Even if you can’t answer right away be sure to send a brief acknowledgement of receipt that indicates when you will be able to reply.

6 – Your message is unfocused, too LONG or covers too many points. Don’t jibber-jabber when you start — get straight to the point. And remember what some doctors tell you: only one problem per visit. The same is true of email: only one subject per email. This is a hard rule to follow because you’ll be so tempted by “economies of scale” to jam in too much info (or ask as many questions). Don’t do it! Remember that many people never discard their emails and, instead, file them in folders for later reference. If your email has covered three subjects and the subject line reveals only one, they’re going to have a great deal of difficulty finding that email again. It’s particularly important to follow this rule if you’re asking your readers to do more than one thing.

7 – You fail to distinguish between formal and informal emails. If you’re writing an email to your best friend or your mom, you can be as informal as you like. But if you’re preparing a business email, remember to keep it professional. Begin with “Dear” (rather than “hi”), introduce yourself if the reader might not know you and don’t use jargon (it’s rude and isolating) or emojis (they’ll make you look young and perhaps irresponsible) and initialisms like ROFL or IMHO and LOL (not everyone knows what they mean.)

8 – You fail to edit. I’m a big believer in the crappy first draft. But, did you know, there’s a crappy first draft for emails as well? Don’t inflict it on your readers. Let your email incubate for at least an hour then go back to edit. I know this sounds time consuming so it’s not necessary for the super simple and straightforward emails but it’s 100% necessary for any important ones. Write the crappy first draft as fast as you can and then spend an equal amount of time (better: more) editing it. If the email is important, it’s well worth the investment.

9 – You fail to proofread. We all make mistakes when we’re writing. I was reading a document (not an email) for a client yesterday and discovered we’d written “If fact” instead of “In fact.” Thankfully, we had a professional proofreader who caught the error. Almost no one can afford a professional proofreader for email so here’s what I suggest: (1) Temporarily change the font and the type-size of your email — I like Papyrus 18 point — and (2) Read the email aloud. If you perform both of these actions you’ll be able to catch the vast majority of errors.

10 – You believe all emails are private. The security of emails is laughable. Whenever I’m emailing someone, I assume it could be read on the 6 pm news. Quite apart from legal issues (it’s always possible your email will be caught up in a court case) think about how blisteringly easy it is to forward any email. Or to make a mistake. Many years ago, a former boss of mine was ranting by email about a reporter. The trouble? He accidentally sent the email to the very reporter he was complaining about. Oops! The boss was deeply humiliated and (rightfully) had to make an abject apology to the wronged employee. If he’d been more careful, he wouldn’t have made the mistake. And if he hadn’t sent the email in the first place, the issue would never have arisen. Don’t gossip or complain — or, if you must, do it in conversation rather than email.

11 – You let yourself respond in anger. I received an email from a client last week that, frankly, pissed me off. Knowing I was angry, I put it aside for half a day so I wouldn’t respond inappropriately. Once I was calmer, I spent some time thinking about what I wanted the client to do (ie: abandon his dumb idea) and I wrote a carefully crafted email that politely spelled out the drawbacks of his suggestion. Then, I concluded by giving him a choice and saying I’d follow whichever option he wanted me to. Success! He told me I was right and let me go back to my original plan.

Email is an enormous burden on many professionals, adding hours of work to already busy days. I don’t want to add to that burden by suggesting these missives should be some highly polished form of art. They shouldn’t be. But they need to be good enough that you don’t appear to be careless or unprofessional.

Are there any email errors I’ve missed? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Telling True Stories, a collection from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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