How good are you at email? We all complain about getting too much of it, and we all try to cut down the time we spend on it. Yet in our email-driven business world, it remains a primary form of communication, something we spend a large part of every workday doing. The amount of time we spend on it makes many of us feel like email experts. But we're not.
When Sandra Lamb, author of Writing Well for Business Success, interviewed CEOs of companies large and small for her book, complaints about employees' email behavior came tumbling out. Some of these gaffes are costing otherwise smart email senders promotions and business deals. In extreme cases, it can even get them fired.
Here are 13 of these top executives' biggest complaints about the email they receive. See how many you've been guilty of--everyone has done at least one of these things, most likely more.
1. Bad subject lines.
You should probably put as much thought into your subject line as you do into the email itself. That's because people get so much email these days that they skip reading some of their messages. If your subject line doesn't tell the reader right up front why your message is important, it may get skipped as well. (Here's more on how to write a subject line that will get your emails read.)
2. Improper use of "reply all," CC, or BCC.
I was once on a board that was discussing the possible dismissal of an employee when a distracted board member sent an email asking if we'd come to a decision--inadvertently copying the employee in question. Another time I thoughtlessly included my husband on an email thread in which, if he'd scrolled down far enough, he would have seen my plans for throwing him a surprise party.
We've all committed this kind of error, so it isn't surprising that it's among top executives' pet peeves. Before you send a message, look carefully at the recipient list to make sure you aren't sending your message to people who shouldn't see it. You should also avoid copying people who don't need to see it, since you'll just be adding to the general email clutter. At the same time, make sure everyone who does need the information is included. And double-check that you aren't just replying to one person if you mean to reply to the group, or vice versa.
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3. Not following policies, protocol, or politics.
Who should receive your email? Should someone else have the opportunity to review it before you send it? Your company may have policies about this. If so, make sure your email abides by those policies. You should also think beyond official policies and consider unwritten rules and procedures. Is there anyone who would be offended not to be copied on this email? Is there anyone who needs to know its contents that you've forgotten?
You could simply neglect to include someone in an email thread, but those who get left out may conclude that you're deliberately excluding them or even trying to conceal something. Avoid those kinds of misunderstanding by thinking carefully about who needs to see an email before you send it.
4. Marking messages as urgent that aren't.
Some people get in the habit of marking everything as Urgent or Needs Response ASAP. Or they too often take advantage of an urgent designation within their email software. Do this too often and your recipients will start ignoring your "urgent" messages. That could be a problem if you have something to send that truly does require an immediate response.
But really, if something is urgent, you should probably pick up the phone and call, or send a text, rather than email. Which is why you should never, or almost never, send messages marked Urgent.
5. Failure to consider legal risks.
Lamb interviewed a senior executive at an international technology company about his biggest email worries recently. "Of particular concern is that his employees fail to weigh the possible legal implications of their email content," she reports. As Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, email can have unexpected and unpleasant consequences.
Whether or not you're in the habit of deleting the contents of your inbox, the email you send sticks around forever, if not on your own servers, then likely on your recipients'. And it's subject to discovery in case of legal action, meaning that every email you've ever sent could turn up as part of a criminal prosecution or civil suit if it's at all relevant to the case.
Since having legal counsel review all your emails is impractical, how can you stay out of trouble? "When in doubt, discuss the matter face-to-face, or use the telephone," Lamb says.
6. Email messages that are rambling or unclear.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously noted that he'd written a long letter because he didn't have time to write a short one. It's a quote that's been repeated often because it's a universal experience. You sit down to write something, thinking things through as you go, and by the time you're finished, you've taken a meandering path to making your point.
This is why you should never click Send until you've reread your email at least once and preferably a couple of times. Consider your message from the recipient's viewpoint and remove anything that he or she doesn't need to know. Make sure what remains makes its point concisely, and is easy for anyone to understand. "Think through your message until you can state it in a single sentence," Lamb advises. "This helps order your thoughts."
7. Run-on sentences.
Surprisingly, this came up as a frequent complaint. By run-on sentence, I mean a sentence that goes on and on so long, and with so many additional clauses, that a reader might forget halfway through what the original point was, kind of like this sentence right here. Don't do it. Use a period once in a while.
8. Grammatical errors.
Yes, grammar--including punctuation--counts when it comes to emails. We all receive so many emails so replete with grammatical errors that it's easy to assume no one cares. But some people care a lot, and they could include your boss, your board members, or your prospective customers. As Lamb notes, in an email-driven business world, good writing counts more than ever. So take the time to double-check and make sure your grammar is right before sending that message.
9. An annoying tone.
Nobody sets out to be offensive in their business emails. But the very nature of email can get you in trouble. An offhand or humorous comment that would come across as such in a face-to-face or phone conversation may not be taken as you intended if you include it in an email. The smart approach is to err on the side of being too courteous and too friendly. Avoid any form of sarcasm. And use humor sparingly if at all since it can so easily be misconstrued.
10. An improper or brusque greeting--or no greeting at all.
An email should begin with a greeting, Lamb contends. But what about those situations where you're sending a message to a stranger? Sometimes I worry that using the person's first name may seem too informal, and using "Mr." or "Ms." and a last name may seem too formal.
"The best greeting in that situation is the middle ground: 'Dear David Smith,'" Lamb says. "Judge by the sendee's organization and the subject matter," she adds. "Bankers and lawyers are more formal, for example, than artists usually are."
11. Failing to add value to the conversation.
"There's lots of chaff in emails," Lamb notes. So don't add to the problem. If you just want to thank someone, or you agree with something they said, consider whether you need to send an email at all, and if so, whether you need to send it to everyone on the thread or just to that one person.
12. Sending too much email.
The tech exec Lamb interviewed complained about the amount of time some people are obviously spending on email--rather than getting actual work done. "They seem to believe that their career well-being and advancement is going to be measured by the volume of emails they produce," she says.
If you've fallen into this pattern of thinking, snap out of it. No one ever won a promotion, or a prize, or a place in history for sending lots and lots of email. There are more effective ways you could be directing your energy.
13. Using email to communicate when something else would be better.
One of the complaints Lamb hears is that people don't consider the full range of communication options, from face-to-face meetings, to videoconferences, to instant messages, to texts, to faxes, before they send an email. "Email is good for passing along information, but not for many other things," she says.
Before you take the time and attention to write a well-crafted email--and definitely before you send off a slapdash one--stop and ask yourself whether the best approach to email might be to use something else instead.