Gina London: Play your trump card and create emails with impact
I'm off to Washington this week, where a lot of news is being made about emails. So, while I've touched on this before, let's take another crack at how you might take better charge of yours. I'm not going to warn you to stay away from foreign nationals promising dirt on a business rival. I'll leave that to your own discretion.
Brushing up on your business-writing skills - including emails - is something that can help you earn a promotion, negotiate a contract or improve customer service.
Slipshod business writing can have the opposite effect. Knowing that what you write is everlasting, consider the wide range of things you may write as part of your job. Like email threads, anything in writing can be printed or shared online. If you're not careful, you could lose friends, face and even your professional future. Developing your professional brand should include taking responsibility for how you write. Here are seven easy ways to help you improve your emails and other documents.
1 Consider readers' habits
Before you write your next email, imagine how your intended recipient is actually going to react to it. We're all so busy and our in-boxes are generally so full, you don't expect us to literally read: Every. Single. Word. (Like I'm clearly hoping you are now). The thousands of people across the globe with whom I have worked all admit they don't read, they scan. They gist. They browse. They're multi-tasking. Some tell me they have their email in-box open at the same time they have their Twitter tab or whatever social media tab du jour open and are essentially reading two feeds at once!
2 Make your copy easier to read
Go ahead and brain-dump your content. But then tighten your sentences. Reduce unnecessary flowery language. Rearrange a narrative style into bullets or numbered points. Consider adding one topical word to kick off each point. Consider putting some words in bold so they stand out. Same thing with adding colour. Imagine how you would react if you received your own email. Would you read it?
3 Pay attention to spelling and grammar
I know, I know. Typos happen. I have hit the send button and only afterward realised in embarrassment that I misspelled someone's name. When that happens, I email quickly again to acknowledge and apologise for my mistake. People are generally forgiving if you own up. But as much as you can, remind yourself to double check. Try to give yourself time to set aside your writing and send your email after you have re-read it later.
Further, try to write in a strong, active voice instead of the more impersonal, passive voice. "The meeting has been postponed" is passive. "Let's postpone the meeting" is active.
4 Eliminate jargon and business cliches
If your audience won't immediately understand what you mean when you write something very techy or industry specific, then you better simplify. Jargon can be confusing, so err on the side of caution.
Business cliches on the other hand, are so over-used that while your reader may know what you mean, they may lose interest when you use a trite saying instead of taking time to write more clearly.
I remember right after I moved to Ireland people were complaining about the term "fiscal space".
The term was being so over-used that it lost impact. People turned off and tuned out.
There are so many business cliches. You know them when you hear them and you're sick of them. Unless you're writing to an internal audience in your organisation and you're all in agreement that "paradigm shift" or "win-win" doesn't make you all cringe, try to use more plain writing. That definitely goes when you're writing to external clients, prospects or international colleagues.
Once, feeling particularly mischievous before a weekly meeting back when I worked at a lobbying firm, a colleague and I made bingo cards with our ceo's favourite cliches.
Each time she said, "from that perspective," or "push the envelope", we covered a space.
It didn't take long until someone kicked me under the table and mouthed "Bingo!"
We laughed out loud. We were a very mature group.
5 Less is MORE. (Oh, wait. Is that a cliche?) Anyway. Knowing that most people are scanning their emails, keep your emails brief. Don't make too many points. Three is about all a reader will take in at a time. There. That's it.
6 Don't give too many choices
If you're looking for feedback or looking to schedule a future meeting or call, don't offer unlimited choices.
"I look forward to hearing from you soon" doesn't really ask the reader anything specific. Ideally, present a single date and time and ask them to confirm or offer a different time.
At most, offer two options and ask your reader to pick one. If you leave it too wide open, your reader may become perplexed, move on to the next email and not respond at all. Not what you were aiming for.
Adding a postscript can be a clever way to grab your reader's attention and add one final thought or an invitation or a business opportunity in a friendly, seemingly off-hand way. Don't use this too often, however. It will become cliche! Bingo.
Are you wrestling with your professional writing? Would you like a postcard from Gina while she's in Washington? Write to her in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie
Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon
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