The Reality of Email – What You Say Can’t Be Taken Back
Email is a great business tool, one that’s revolutionized the way we communicate in modern times. But it’s also the case – and always worth repeating – that it’s dangerous if not used carefully.
For the vast majority of emails, the “tone” of your message should be forthright, professional and unambiguous. We need to plan a meeting, add a thought or two to a draft document, ask for an update on a new initiative. The danger comes when you communicate something else in your email message, say, a comment on some delicate workplace situation or an offhand “joking” take on what a senior executive said during a meeting.
Short of using emoticons, which really have no place in business communications, it’s very difficult to convey tone in an email message. Content can be easily misconstrued, either through the writer’s lack of clarity or a reader’s misinterpretation. But for many of us, as soon as we’ve put a draft message together, we’re mentally on to the next thing. In our haste to move on, we often fail to take a deep breath and look over what we’ve written.
When you press “Send,” your message is gone. What you choose to say can never be taken back.
I’m not exaggerating. In working with business leaders, I’ve often see “career killers”—emails using tactless or confusing language that ended up being very badly misconstrued on the receiving end. All because the sender was too impatient to sit on the message for a little while and think about the best way to frame that message. Remember, it’s easy for anyone to press “Forward” and share an ill-tempered email with the rest of the world.
A few other tips to avoid email problems:
Short messages are best. Think about one (at most, two) basic ideas you’d like to convey. Craft your message to be quickly read and understood by the recipient.
Stay businesslike. What you write reflects on both you and the company you lead. Anything you write can be forwarded at any time and (worst-case legal scenario) retrieved and reviewed at a later time.
Use conventional language and punctuation. Business communications aren’t the place for tricky spelling or short-cuts (“see you B4 lunch”). These so-called time-saving devices only add to the potential for confusion and misunderstanding at the other end.
If you need to communicate with someone on your team about a controversial subject, or need to address some inappropriate behavior, I strongly encourage you not to do so in an email message. These are issues far better handled in person or at least over the phone. Keep email as a tool for basic communications needs.
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