Here’s a Netflix docuseries I’d binge watch in a weekend.
Have ordinary people stand in front of a packed theatre and read their most cringe-worthy work emails.
There’d be the “my boss is a complete idiot” emails accidentally sent to bosses. The soul-baring private messages inadvertently forwarded to all-staff distribution lists. The late-night 3,000-word rally cries and manifestos to fix all that’s wrong at work. The self-aggrandizing and ingratiating emails sent to higher-ups. The all-cap emails fired off in righteous fury over a perceived slight. The snarky and tongue-in-cheek emails that were cruel, unkind and broke friendships. And the emails with jokes, memes and videos that were never in any way suitable for work.
Now, you’re smart enough to never send any of these emails or you at least know better than to read them before a live studio audience. But all of us are likely sending emails that are taxing the cognitive load of our bosses and colleagues.
Anne Janzer has practical tips for cleaning up our email hygiene in her book 33 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Business Emails.
“An email may seem impermanent, fleeting and private,” says Janzer. “But it long outlasts the attention you pay to it, and could haunt you later. Check what you’re saying before you send messages to other people’s mailboxes and corporate email servers. Once you send an email, you lose control over what others do with your words.”
Here are five simple tips to fix your emails
Take the coffee test. You’ve written an email that you need everyone to read. Don’t hit send just yet. Instead, email yourself a draft. Then go stand in line for a coffee or wander into the kitchen and pop a pod into your Keurig. Take out your phone and read your draft email. Can you finish reading it before your coffee’s served or brewed? If not, rewrite your email and try again.
Now apply the GPS test to make sure there’ll be no confusion. “To test for tone and clarity, read it aloud in a monotone voice,” says Janzer. “Think of the automated navigation voice on a GPS system. Does your email make sense when stripped of all vocal inflection.? If you find yourself wanting to emphasize words to clarify what you mean, you may be misleading the reader.”
Stay in the Goldilocks zone. We all know to never email anyone a wall of words. But emails that are too short can be just as problematic. Aim for emails that are just right in terms of length, context and detail.
Always lead with a personalized greeting. “We are wired to pay attention to our names,” says Janzer, who ran a survey about salutations on LinkedIn. More than half of respondents chose “Hi name”, with 20 per cent opting for “Hello name” and 12 per cent preferring “Dear name”.
And start putting the purpose of your email in the subject line. Are you emailing something for review, discussion or approval? Are you sharing, or asking for, information? Have your team agree on abbreviations like FR, FA, FD and FYI. What you put in the subject line decides the fate of your email. Is it opened and read right away or is it left unread and quickly forgotten?
I could’ve used this book at the start of my career. Email rules at work tend to be unwritten and learned through trial and error. So why not have your team read Janzer’s book as a team-building and bonding exercise? And then bring everyone together to hammer out some email ground rules. If you need an icebreaker, invite a few brave souls to revisit their worst ever work emails. I have a few I could send you that’ll make you cringe.
Jay Robb is the communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.