"Your e-mail, sent internally or externally, is probably more important in affecting your career than anything else you write," says Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consultants, a communications training firm that has taught execs at 22 of the largest 50 corporations in America how to write and speak better. When you send e-mail, Booher adds, "you're documenting what you do."
Think about it: What kind of document do you send to your boss most often? What document do you receive from your staffers most often? E-mail. Treat e-mail without enough thought, and you will limit yourself professionally, Booher says.
In her new book, The Voice of Authority: 10 Communication Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know (McGraw-Hill), Booher outlines 10 things you should never put in an e-mail. Of these 10 e-mail mistakes, which one do executives make most commonly?
"Sloppy writing," Booher says. "They are in a hurry and they assume it won’t be passed on. They assume everyone has the context for the message. Provide a context for your comments and make sure people know what kind of action you expect."
Don’t Do That! 10 E-Mail No-Nos
1. Negative comments regarding your firm's executives. Too easy for someone else to forward accidentally.
2. Performance criticism. Seems more "official" than when spoken, causing people to worry too much.
3. Bonus or salary matters. Company plans may change.
4. Racial or gender slurs. Enough said.
5. Details relating to product liabilities. Court trail, anyone?
6. Lies about your company's rivals. Another ticket to legal trouble.
7. Office dish. If people want to spread their own news, let them.
8. Sloppy writing. Your image is at stake, even if you're hacking away on a BlackBerry.
9. Sarcastic humor. Without inflection or visual cues, it's risky.
10. Private matters. Don't e-mail details on any part of your life that you wouldn’t want to see in the newspaper.
Source: Dianna Booher
Don’t just deliver news, she says. Make your request. Communicate clearly. And avoid shorthand, which can mask what you really intend to say.
At one client, a major real estate business, "the CEO of the company got an e-mail saying 'we need to set up more procedures on how we close on commercial property.' He wrote back and said ‘I don't understand why we need all these procedures.’" The staff wrote a lengthy explanation. He didn’t need the explanation, he just meant no, he didn’t want more procedures," Booher says. "But he worded it in a sloppy way." This wasted his team's time.
Subject Lines Are Critical
The most important part of every e-mail is the subject line, Booher says. As the volume of everyone's daily e-mail increases to dizzying levels, so does the importance of your subject line. "Instead of a topic, it should be a headline, like a newspaper headline," she says. "Not 'Storm,' but 'Storm Dumps Two Inches of Snow.' Make the point, don’t state the topic," she says. "If you want action, state it in the subject line," she advises.
Maybe you're thinking, "I don’t have time to be careful as I write e-mail." It doesn’t take much time to add a courtesy phrase at the end of every e-mail, she says. And for execs like CIOs and CEOs, a simple "thanks" at the end of a message can make you seem concise, instead of brusque or blunt, she advises.
"I hear this all the time," Booher says. "An executive will say 'I'm told I'm blunt because I get to the point. They think I'm angry. What's wrong with getting to the point?' " Via e-mail, she says, people can’t tell if you've made your point and are happy or unhappy about it, or to what degree. A simple "thanks" can fix that, she says.
What's her specific advice for CIOs who don’t consider themselves wordsmiths but want to enhance their professional image as communicators? "Watch the linking words: 'and,' 'which,' 'that' and 'with.' That's where the major clarity problems develop," she says. "It's usually one linking word that creates misunderstanding."
Take this example, she says: "Turn the lever and depress the button." Is that one step or two? "When I do a workshop, half of the people answer one step, half answer two," Booher says. Don’t leave your team asking these questions.
Technical people, in particular, tend to join everything with "and" or "which" and write in a stream of consciousness fashion, she notes. This leaves your e-mail recipient unclear on how one idea relates to another.
Caution: Brief BlackBerry Message Ahead
Your trusty BlackBerry also poses its own dangers, since the executive gadget of choice encourages ever-briefer messages. People don’t want to write long messages on BlackBerrys -- or read them. How can you deal with this fact of life? Booher's first rule: "These messages are just as legal as anything else. If you give information that's inaccurate or wrong, it's just as likely to be used in court."
Be particularly careful about identifying who you're talking about and what question you are addressing in these brief missives, Booher suggests. "It's extremely important to learn to be complete and clear while being concise. The skill of being able to summarize well is even more important on a BlackBerry."
Consider this BlackBerry message:
We just finished up here. Things went well. Possibility of new leads. Talk to you later.
"I haven’t told you a thing," Booher says. "Did it go well from my perspective or the client's? Are they good leads? From where?"
Should bad news be delivered via e-mail? Tread carefully, she says. "E-mail is efficient. But it lacks heart," she says. "Employees and clients need to know you're concerned, and it's hard to convey concern in an e-mail. In voice mail, they can at least hear your voice. E-mail is so impersonal. And people pick it up at different times, so the problem grows more complex."
"E-mails of complaint, for the most part, would have been far more effective if they had been turned into requests for action," she says. "Don’t sound like a parental scold. People begin to dig in their heels."
Forget about trying to respond to an e-mail thread that turns into an argument, Booher advises. "Pick up the phone," she says. "More than two or three exchanges is really a dumb thing to do. There's too much left to guess and chance."
And if you've written a heated e-mail, consider letting it sit overnight, or at least for an hour, she says.
Her closing advice? Think more about your e-mail sign-off. Make sure the closing fits three factors, she says: your relationship with the recipient; the topic of the e-mail; and how it will be handled, that is, whether it might be printed out and taken to a larger meeting.
Signing every e-mail you send with "cheers" or "best regards" is a mistake, Booher says. "It tells me you have a boiler plate and gave it no thought."