Commentary

September 20, 2013

Commentary: mastering the art of email

Mr. Patrick Buffett
IMCOM

FORT LEE, Va. — Its reelly frustraiting when you receeve one of them emails which didn’t get proofred or spelcheked. They not only fale to comunicate the massage but it don’t reflect very well on you’re orginization either.

While small misteaks … er, mistakes … in our written messages are inevitable and usually forgivable, that isn’t the case with communiqués that appear to have been written by someone with their eyes closed. It’s a “red flag,” according to corporate communication experts who offer all sorts of online advice about business correspondence.

“Sending an email without proofreading is like shooting a gun without aiming,” notes one column on dailywritingtips.com. “If your words are riddled with grammatical mistakes, misused words, poorly written sentences and typographical errors, your email messages very well may become laughing matters. Your co-workers may be very entertained by evidence that your writing skills leave something to be desired.”

So, step one in mastering the art of email is to use the grammar and spell-check features that are included with all of the common word processing and messaging programs, like Microsoft Outlook. They’re not foolproof — sometimes they misfire with homonyms like their and there — but they remind you to check your work, and that second read-through is when you’ll find most of the mistakes.

Another effective editing trick is to read what you wrote out loud. It’s a good way to find clumsy sentences, improper punctuation and misused words because you’re seeing and hearing them in a different context.

Another common problem with written communication is wordiness; messages that go on and on, blah, blah, blah, just to inform you that a meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. next week. “If the reader has to keep scrolling through unstructured thoughts, the email can come across as unimportant, patronizing or careless,” noted Josh Gordesky, president of Game Plan Communications and a frequent blogger on the subject of corporate messaging.

“Unfortunately, redundancy is one of the biggest causes of wordiness followed by irrelevant statements,” advised Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. “Grammar Girl,” in her online column. “Here’s one that I’m guilty of in emails — starting a sentence with ‘I just wanted to let you know that … .’ Ugh! Just say it. There’s no need to sneak up on a sentence like you’re trying to lasso a wild horse. It’s not even good writing because it uses past tense as if I wanted to tell someone yesterday but didn’t get around to it until today and, even though I’m not so sure anymore, I’ll just say it anyway.”

Which brings us to steps two and three: Set a 300-word limit and stick to it. Apply the “bottom line up front” rule where you clearly state the purpose of the email in the first sentence, and follow that with any information that’s required for clarity, further coordination and preparation if needed. During the final grammar check, eliminate the puff and fluff. Short, simple sentences are far more effective than attempts to show off your vocabulary.

Remember also that signature blocks should be equally succinct. Names, titles, office numbers and hot links to the Interactive Customer Evaluation system or your organization’s website are OK. Unofficial/personal quotations, mottoes, slogans and logos are not only unnecessary information; they’re also prohibited by some commands.

Subject lines should be another consideration (step four). According to the website Pingdom.com, an estimated 294 billion email messages are transmitted every day. The amount generated by the U.S. government alone is anybody’s guess, but it’s pretty clear that email users have to be competitive every time they hit the “send” button.

A carefully considered and short subject line is the best way to grab attention. Anything else, to include “read this” or, gasp, leaving the subject blank, is an assured ticket to the “deleted items” file. This tip also applies to lengthy email discussions in which messages bounce back and forth between users. As the topic evolves or changes, edit the subject line and keep it current and effective.

The fifth and final tip is probably the most important of all — know who you’re communicating with and what his or her potential interest/knowledge level may be in the subject of the email. This one covers a lot of territory ranging from shotgun emails to those created by techno-wizards who think it’s OK to sum up two years of post-graduate work in a one paragraph message.

A lot of email inboxes across the Army would be significantly smaller if users considered the following before firing another message into the computer grid:

  • Would it be easier to pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting? Direct communication is the best way to ensure specific concepts, requests and/or event details are understood.
  • Am I including only need-to-know information? You don’t meet the needs of the reader when you send the Library of Congress in attachments and links. Remember also that large file sizes bog down the email network.
  • Is “reply all” the right choice? Perhaps the other 47 recipients of the message aren’t interested in the dental appointment that will make you unavailable for tomorrow’s meeting.
  • Does it comply with acceptable use rules? Annual information assurance training identifies the do’s and don’ts of government email. Caution is advised with fundraising activities other than CFC or those approved by post leadership. Chain mail and messages that promote anything that results in personal gain are prohibited.

Anyone who would like to learn more about effective writing and email communication can find lots of information on the Internet. Among the more informative sites are www.dailywritingtips.com, www.businessemailetiquette.com and www.netmanners.com.




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