“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
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
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
Don’t Do That! 10 E-Mail No-Nos
1. Negative comments regarding your firm’s
executives. Too easy for someone else to
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
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,
“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
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?
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
“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.”