Harvard Business Review Associate Editor Gretchen Gavett breaks down the do's and don'ts of work emails and highlights how you can make your message stand out.
First, Gavett says you should focus on the finer details of your message. For instance, checking for typos and punctuation mistakes, using an easy-to-read font, breaking up long blocks of text, and including a direct and descriptive subject line can help ensure those on the receiving end understand what you're trying to say and take your message seriously.
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Business writing expert Bryan Garner says, "It takes less time to write a clear message the first time around than it does to follow up to explain what you meant to say."
The most important thing, according to Garner, is to get your point across quickly. "Consider your message from their perspective," he says." They aren't as immersed in your project as you are, and they probably have many other things going on. So remind them where things stood when you last sent an update, and describe what's happened since then."
Overall, Gavett says, no email should be sent without being proofed and potentially revised. Author David Silverman advocates for a particular formula that determines how many revisions your email should go through before being sent:
- One to five recipients = Two to four revisions;
- Five to 10 recipients = Eight to 12 revisions;
- Company-wide or to Executive Committee = 30 to 50 revisions.
But Gavett also recommends making strategic typos—that convey to the recipient that you are not "crafting" your message—when it is more important that your email appear emotionally authentic, and less important that it be error-free.
Tips for sensitive emails
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For emails with potentially sensitive subject matter, Gavett recommends simply delivering the news in person if possible, because how someone will interpret a message can be unpredictable.
You should also keep in mind the personal history between yourself and the sender, Gavett suggests. Sending an email might be ok if you have a long history with someone and are confident in how they will perceive the message. But if you feel tension building up or things get emotional, you should switch to another medium like phone or video chat, she says.
However, if it is not possible to give bad news or discuss conflict in person, Gavett says to always put yourself in the other person's shoes before sending the email and be sure to state your emotions explicitly to cut down the chances of the recipient misinterpreting the text (Gavett, Harvard Business Review, 7/24).
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