by Calvin Sun
Few communications tools give you as much exposure as e-mail.Unfortunately, mistakes in your e-mail will receive that same exposureas well. Depending on who sees your e-mail, your job, reputation, orcareer could suffer. Fortunately, avoiding these mistakes is easy. Hereare five e-mail habits that annoy me (and maybe you as well), and whatyou can do differently. I'll share another five in my next article.
#1: Vague or nonexistent subject line
Professor Woodward, who taught me contracts last year at TempleUniversity Beasley School of Law, gave me one of the most useful piecesof advice I have ever received. "When arguing a case," he oftensaid, "make it easy for the judge to rule in your favor."Apply that same principle to e-mail. That is, make it easy forrecipients to know what your message is about. If you're like mostpeople, you have an in-basket that summarizes your incoming messages,probably by date, sender, and subject. Don't you love it when youcan get the information you need simply from the subject line? Thesender has made it easy for you and has saved you time.On the other hand, how often have you received an e-mail without asubject or one that's labeled, for example, "Phone number yourequested." Why couldn't the sender have said, right in thesubject line, "The phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx" ?When sending an e-mail that concerns a particular person, give detailsin the subject line, along with the name. For example, if Joe Brown hasbeen promoted, make your subject line "Joe Brown has beenpromoted." Do not use only the name as the subject. If you send outan e-mail with just the subject "Joe Brown," recipients maymistakenly believe that Mr. Brown has passed on.In the event you do need to transmit such sad news, be explicit. Forexample, say "Joe Brown RIP" or "Passing of Joe Brown"or "Joe Brown [year of birth] - [year of death]."
#2: Changing the topic without changing the subject
Have you ever read an advertisement for an item that's on sale, thengone to the store only to discover that that item is sold out? By law,the store has to give you a rain check, because of abuses in the past.In the old days, the store would simply try to sell you something elseinstead, a practice known as "bait and switch."E-mail users employ bait and switch all too often, usually out oflaziness. For example, you send a note to a co-worker about subject 1.That co-worker later needs to send a note to you on subject 2. However,instead of creating a new note and labeling it "subject 2," heor she simply replies to you, discusses subject 2, but keeps the subjectline as "subject 1." Annoying, isn't it? When you sende-mail, make sure the subject line matches the actual subject. Ifyou're going to send a note via a reply, change the subject line tomatch the actual subject.A few months ago, during a period of really cold weather, a neighborsent an e-mail to all the residents of our development regarding aneighborhood telephone directory, and titled it "neighborhooddirectory." A half hour later, I received a reply-to-all messagefrom another neighbor with the subject "Re: neighborhooddirectory." When I accidentally clicked on that message, I read thatthe sender's heater had broken and that he was asking to borrowblankets and kerosene heaters. He did get what he needed and did laterget his heater fixed. However, had he given his note a better subjectheading, he might have had a faster response.
#3: Including multiple subjects in one note
Covering multiple topics in one note involves less sending and henceless e-mail traffic and volume. However, your recipient might overlookone or more of those topics. It's better to keep to one topic permessage.
#4: Sending before thinking
When you were small, your mother probably told you to count to threebefore responding to someone (mine told me to count to 10). Why did shesay that? She knew that answering before thinking can lead to problems.Make sure you really mean to say what you've written. People caninterpret your words differently from what you meant. A statement madein jest to someone via e-mail may have a greater chance of beingmisinterpreted than one made in person. Also, be careful about reactingand replying too quickly to an e-mail that upsets you. As Proverbs 12:16says, "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent manoverlooks an insult."I'll talk more about it in a future article, but legal implicationsoffer another reason to think before sending. E-mail can be subject to"discovery" by attorneys for a party that might be suing youremployer. That is, the things you write in your e-mail could end up inthe hands of those attorneys and could be used as evidence against yourcompany in a trial. So before you send an e-mail, imagine thatyou're on a witness stand having to explain it.
#5: Inadvertent replying to all
Before hitting Reply To All, make sure you really need to do so. Doeseveryone need to see your response? Does your response benefit everyoneelse? Or are you sending merely a private response or addressing apersonal issue with the sender? In these situations, it's betterjust to do a simple Reply. Otherwise, your private disagreement becomespublic (and embarrassing) knowledge.Be aware that if you receive a message because you're part ofcertain message groups (e.g., a Yahoo group), your reply might go toeveryone in the group even if you just hit Reply.Do you recognize yourself in any of these mistakes? The good news isthat once you recognize these issues, it's easy to address them.
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