The email whisperer: Writing coach Carol Willis shared a few tips last week for the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce at the Brookdale Meridian retirement center. Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
Everyone knows writing an email in all caps is like YELLING FIRE IN A CROWDED THEATER!
But did you ever think about the effect of a misspelled word, even in lower case?
“Typos indicate a lack of control, and when somebody is emotional, they are more likely to have lack of control,” writing coach Carol Willis said to business leaders last week. “There have actually been studies done where people have been given emails to read, and they are more likely to say the person is upset if the emails have typos in them.”
With dozens—if not hundreds—of emails piling into one’s inbox every day, it is easy to forget the skills it takes to use the most pervasive of business communication channels effectively. Although email has been an indispensable tool since the late 1990s, its ubiquity has led to a kind of carelessness that often misses the whole point of the printed word.
“Good writing has power and beauty,” Willis told an April 11 breakfast meeting of the Greater Englewood Chamber of Commerce. “Sloppy writing, on the other hand, can obscure meaning. It can cause misunderstanding and it can harm the reputation of the person who is using it.”
Spontaneity in “virtual” print may be fine for casual email and social media, but Willis says businesspeople should be more careful when it comes to messaging colleagues and business associates. Time was that body language and tone of voice could help—or sometimes hurt—interaction, but without those variables, an emailing wordsmith is on his own.
“Writing is heavy lifting because half of our communication doesn’t have anything to do with the words that we say,” Willis said, without irony.
Usually, that means practicing a sort of golden rule of communication—to speak, as best we can, the language of the individual one is emailing. It all begins with a simple greeting.
“If you have never met this person and his business card says Matthew, don’t call him Matt,” Willis advised. “He may have decided in eighth grade he didn’t want to be Matt anymore.”
And even “Matthew” may not be enough to make the recipient feel at home. Would he respond more favorably to a courtesy or professional title? A “good morning” or “hello” might make him more receptive.
Then, get to the point.
“Don’t make them scroll to find the main thing you want them to know,” Willis said.
Short paragraphs, bullet points and simple wording are some of the tools.
“If you can make it more direct and easy to understand, that’s true professionalism,” she said.
Once the message is ready, write a precise and effective subject line, keeping in mind that about two thirds of email is opened on mobile devices. Keep it short and sweet.
Before getting ready to send the message, read it one more time carefully, out loud if possible.
“Use your finger to point at the words as you say them because it’s easier to read what you think you wrote,” Willis said.
Lastly—and only lastly—type in the intended email address. That way, the message cannot be sent until you are ready. Willis cited the example of an elated freelance writer who mistakenly sent an email of elation, intended for his mother, to the editor who has just given him the coveted assignment.
“Six-hundred spondulix for a piece on parenting, and I don’t even have kids!” the writer wrote in a message errantly sent back to the editor, via that too-easy-to-hit reply button.
The bottom line, Willis says, write your professional emails as if they will be read in court someday—because they just might.
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