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March 2016

Email: Its Pluses and Pitfalls

Greetings once again. I’ve been around long enough to make a living in the writing business well before email appeared. Now that it is for all intents and purposes corporate communications, I love email for its fingertip convenience and the way it gives me space to think as I respond to messages -- as opposed to the give-and-take in a pre-email phone call, where I often wished I had time to respond in more considered fashion.

Of course, email has its downsides, and it’s been more than three years since I touched on them in this space. I'll start by quoting Peter Post, who writes about business etiquette at the Boston Globe, on the three "C's" of properly deployed email, particularly as they apply to anyone seeking a job. I’ve added a few notes of my own about the workplace in general:

Clear. Clarity is important. Your message should be easy to understand, and not leave the recipient guessing or trying to figure out what you mean. Avoid humor or sarcasm, either of which can easily be misunderstood.

Me: The acronym I use is BLUF, bottom line up front. As to humor or sarcasm, which fall under the heading of "tone," I often remind my federal agency clients that their emails are archived indefinitely, and that they can be passed on to parties unknown. The real danger of being cute in emails is that you get no immediate reaction and feel empowered by your cleverness to hit the "send" button, whereas you’d be cautious about such language if you were talking to someone directly, in person or over the phone.

Concise. Hand-in-hand with being clear, your message also should be brief -- two or three paragraphs should do it. The exception is if you embed your resume in the e-mail and it causes the body of the e-mail to be longer. Still, the message preceding the resume should be concise and to the point.

Me: Brevity and clarity go together. Length alienates, and gives you enough room to sound pompous and officious, even if unintentionally. One suggestion: Write not to impress, but to edify, putting the readers’ needs first. Another: Write to "take AIM" (audience, intent, message). If you don’t have a clear picture of intent, or purpose, in mind, your message will be muddled.

Correct. Proofread not only for spelling but also for grammar and for word choice. Whenever a recipient sees a misspelled word, poor grammar, or incorrect word choice, the recipient’s focus falls on the mistake, not the message. Misspellings and bad grammar can leave the recipient wondering if you are prone to making mistakes in your work. Once that "sloppy" or "careless" image is embedded in the prospective employer’s mind, changing it will be very difficult.

Me: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Many years ago, I talked to some psychologists in the nascent field of "human error" -- why otherwise intelligent people make serious mistakes. The answer, their research showed, was that errors emit randomly from the brain when we’re under deadline or other types of pressure. But that’s okay, they said, as long as we catch them before they take effect. In other words, no matter how automated the cockpit in a modern airliner, there will always be a seat for the copilot to monitor the pilot as he or she monitors the flight controls and instruments. And a nurse will always check to see that the doctor surgically replaces the correct knee.

The same goes for editing oneself. Sloppy misspelling, failure to follow agreed-upon language conventions (grammar), and blatant inaccuracies will leave the frustrated reader asking, "What else is wrong with the content? Can I afford to act on it?" At the very least, attempts to clarify the message often lead to a string of back-and-forths that could further confuse things and delay workplace communications, which, after all, are supposed to be much quicker and more efficient, thanks to email.

To safeguard your reputation, one solution may be to have someone else act as editor. In some offices or agencies, that’s known as "teamwork."

Enjoy spring.