On writing in business: 5 Steps to avoiding tone-deaf emails

going 2 lunchSince I’ve been writing about work-related communications on this blog lately, I thought I would touch on a subject that makes my teeth hurt – tone-deaf emails. Now I know the proper usage and definition of tone-deaf, but I find its concept applicable to this subject on a multidimensional scale.

Tone-deaf emails are simply emails written with a total disregard to the tone, or emotion, the message conveys. I have received a lot of them in my professional life, I’m sure you have too. There are the gratuitously angry messages like, “you NEED to do this NOW!!!” in the subject line with a blank body. And there are the five words or less messages like “thanks – got it” or “can you do it????” They seem harmless enough, but consider receiving them several times an hour – all day every day. The sheer quantity of these simple messages adds up to piles of resentment and gnawing frustration as a complete lack of humanity grows apparent.

We all need humanity in our relationships with other people; communication, emails included, is a critical element in all relationships. But you already know this. Thing is, this applies to business relationships too, they are no less valuable than one with a spouse, child, or parent. So why treat business relationships as lesser status?

Here are five steps that should take up residence in your subconscious to avoid being tone-deaf in your work emails.

1. Mood is everything.

Think about the emails that piss you off. You feel like the sender is a nasty, ego-centric ogre who shows no gratitude or respect for your valuable time. These emails suck. They throw off your mood. Don’t be one of these tone-deaf senders. Don’t be an ogre.

The solution is actually quite easy, it just requires care and attention to detail, and an extra minute of your time for review, to avoid a tenure of acrimony. Start by maintaining professionalism. Be cheerful if appropriate, but don’t ever spew anger or frustration in an email. Simply stated, be nice and respectful. Even if it’s to communicate a negative topic. It makes the recipient more likely to cooperate rather than throw a chair at your head at the next meeting.

2. Timing is everything too.

You have full control over the time when composing an email. There is no prize for clicking that send button quickly. Save a draft for later if you’re in a hurry. Review, revise, and edit what you wrote, you can avoid mistakes that would otherwise lead to several back-and-forth question and answer sessions clarifying what you originally wrote – how annoying is that? I’ve seen it happen to people I work with, it becomes stressful on both ends.

3. Be decisive.

It’s incredibly unnecessary to include your thought and decision-making processes. No one wants or needs to read, “hmmmmmm … let me think about this … maybe … not sure … well, okay …… yeah … let’s go with it.” Be decisive and direct, leave out the garbage.

4. Brevity counts, but only if it’s clear.

Like my examples in the introduction, those five words or less messages can lead to many questions wasting a lot of time. “That project from a few weeks back – status?” does not accomplish clarity, especially when considering the average person has several concurrent projects at any given time. Going back to mood, it’s easy to be ambiguous. What you may consider a good-natured message may come across as negative to a recipient who is having a bad day.

Keeping it short is fine, generally a good thing, but be specific in message and mood. Humanity matters here.

5. Good grammar and punctuation shows you care.

Just like good manners at the dinner table, good grammar and proper use of punctuation show you care about what you do, that you care about others, and how you want to be perceived. Sadly, I see a serious decline in all forms of online and digital communication. I cringe at ninety percent of the content I see on Twitter and Facebook.

There are thousands of articles on this topic available online, so all I will say is this: think about how you want others to see yourself before sending a message like: “Hey, r u going 2 lunch at 1??? Ill prolly b late.”

Take a minute to look at what you wrote before hitting send.

It’s the difference between being a good communicator or a tone-deaf pejorative you don’t want people calling you behind your back.

On writing in business: Stop overdoing it!

I read a book recently that went to great lengths to describe a point. I’m talking several long paragraphs to convey what should have taken a few sentences, maybe a few more. And this exhaustive technique occurred repeatedly throughout each section in chapter. My patience withered as my attention span changed channels; I had to stop. I skimmed the remaining six chapters as I was able to pick up the points from the first few pages of each. Why the author chose this route is anyone’s guess. Unfortunate because it held a lot of great advice.

Have you ever receive work emails in the same vein? I’m talking about lengthy, dense texts with way too many superfluous words laced with jargon to sound impressive: “In an effort to better optimize our production levels and synergize our teams….” I bet we share a similar disdain for openers like that.

For those of you who struggle with brevity and clarity in your work emails and other similar communications, I’m here to offer my help. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost at seas when trying to compose a simple message containing a lot of important information.

1. Keep it simple and concise.

That’s fairly straightforward, I think. Remove extra words that don’t relay the message. For example, no one needs to read your thought process in an email as portrayed by the trivial “hmmmmmmm…..” It’s an email, not a live conversation. You have time to make decisions, to research your thoughts, to edit and re-edit before you hit Send. Use that time wisely. You have complete power over what your email will say.

2. Avoid jargon and buzzwords.

A recent article I found on Ragan’s PR Daily, “13 responses to ‘dumbing-down’ writing” was probably written with the same attitude as this blog entry. Author Clare Lynch brings to light an important point I wish everyone I’ve ever worked with understood – “use jargon, and 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words.” I jokingly used jargon in my above email opener sample because it has become so ubiquitous. And that is the sad part. I see words like leverage heavily misused along with redundant phrases like circle back.

My point is this: use simple English – or any other language you speak – to communicate your messge. Choose your own words, the words that reflect what you are thinking and feeling about the topic at hand. That is how you will communicate most effectively. Honest simplicity. Not the meaningless jargon everyone in the office has copied to death.

3. Proofread and revise.

I know, proofing and revising was such a pain in high school. It was annoying extra work, especially for lovers of the first draft – another blog topic entirely. As annoying as it was to slave away at revisions under your whip-yielding English teacher’s direction, that was a lifelong critical skill for improving your abilities to interact with others, assuming you live in a society among other humans.

As I stated earlier in point number one – you have complete control over your communication. There really is no excuse to send an email filled with errors or a wrong message. You have full control over when you release that message, so take the extra few minutes to read it over; correct grammar and punctuation, confirm your statements are accurate, and remove anything that will get you in trouble. What’s it take – an extra two minutes? It can save you hours or weeks of problems at work.

4. Watch your tone.

Email, memos, and other similar communication methods are emotionless by nature. You are in control with how your message comes across based on your word choices. It’s easy for a joke to come across as an insult, so avoid that altogether. I have often received emails in which the sender seemed angry and accusatory without any reason for it. Yet, that same person on the phone was pleasant and easy to work with.

Words always matter. Read what you wrote aloud. Remove words that sound harsh or sleazy. If you’re not sure, replace it. Ideally, you want to come across as confident, succinct, and likable. Those qualities will help improve working relationships with your colleagues.

5. Be direct.

Last point of this blog for tonight. Don’t talk in circles, don’t overload your message with superfluous information, don’t offer asides and personal anecdotes. If the backstory you started to write has nothing to do with the reason you are sending this message, delete it. If you have included extra details that may confuse the recipient, kill them.

Directness is terribly important, yet I see it overlooked far too often. Try it. You’ll feel better about emailing your colleagues. Remember, good manners matter.

 

I know there are plenty of other recommendations from communication pros out there. Feel free to share them in the comments below. It would be great to hear from you.