For most working people, email is their favorite communication tool.
We spend a quarter of our working lives in our email inboxes. Little wonder that we sometimes operate on autopilot when writing email and fail to take proper care and attention.
Yet email mistakes can be costly. Small mistakes eat into your productivity, expanding your workload when you already have too much to do. Bigger mistakes can cause you personal or professional embarrassment. Worse, they could cost you a valuable client or even your job.
So smarten up on what not to do with email, so when you're on the verge of making a mistake, you can pull back and correct course.
Let's start with one of the most common email blunders:
Hitting the Wrong Reply (or Forward) Button
An email that goes out to the wrong person is not only embarrassing—it can hurt financially, too.
One public relations manager was so frustrated with a client that she fired off an email to an employee. "Go around [the client] if you want to get anything done," the email said.
Unfortunately, the manager made the mistake of including the client in the email. The firm lost a $5 million account.
It even happens to the best of us. Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame once complained to his co-writer Steven Levitt that a research team he was trying to interview was a "bunch of liars." Well, he thought he was complaining to Levitt. Instead, he wrote the message to the research team he was slurring.
All you can do when you make this mistake is eat humble pie and send a heartfelt apology.
The better solution? When you're responding to a thread, check and double-check the "to" field. This is especially important if your message is only intended for one person in the thread.
Often, replying to the wrong person or people is the result of the following error:
Emailing When You're Angry
We all need to let off steam now and again. Sharing our frustrations helps us to de-stress.
However, email is a terrible tool for venting, whether you're aiming fire at someone who's annoyed you or sharing your frustration behind their back. That's because:
- Email creates a permanent record. Once you've hit the send button, there's no taking back your unkind words. And you never know where the email might end up.
- It's all too easy to say something you'll later regret. If you're riled up while writing an email, hold off on sending it. When your head's clear, you can rewrite or delete it.
- When you're in a state of high emotion, you're more mistake-prone. So there's a chance you'll send your email rampage to the wrong person.
If you need to get something off your chest, it's best done face to face. That way, it stays private, and it's less likely to lead to misunderstandings.
Trying to Be Funny
Email is a terrible tool for joking or for saying anything tongue-in-cheek. It's too easily misunderstood.
In a study at the University of Chicago, researchers transcribed voice recorded messages into emails. The original messages were either serious or sarcastic in tone.
Participants in the study were asked to rate the tone of the transcribed emails: serious or sarcastic? They were right only 56% of the time—hardly better than chance.
Leave your sarcasm out of email, as chances are it will be lost on the recipient.
Only Writing Emails When You Need Something
For most of us, every email in our inbox is another item on our to-do list. People email us because they need something from us.
On the flip side, we all love to receive emails that make us feel good and that can be archived or quickly replied to after we've read them.
What's the lesson here? Start sending emails when you don't need something. Just write to say thanks to a colleague for a job well done, or to congratulate a friend on a recent promotion.
What if you've got nothing to say thank you for? Then reach out by sharing something interesting. You can even keep a swipe file of articles, links, and videos just for this purpose.
When you use email to nurture relationships, people will look forward to hearing from you. What's more, you'll find it easier to make a request when you need to.
Of course, with most emails you send, you will need something from the recipient. So don't make the following mistake:
Not Asking for What You Need
When you write an email, don't expect the recipient to read your mind.
If you need to ask someone for help, but you're not sure what you need, then you're not ready to email. Take a few minutes to think about what you need. Alternatively, call them or meet with them in person.
Emails work best when you make clear, unambiguous requests.
As long as you're polite, stating what you need clearly doesn't mean you're being demanding. It just means you're good at writing effective emails.
Being Constantly Available
Reading and replying to emails the moment they hit your inbox is almost always a mistake.
Unless you're working a job that requires you to provide immediate email replies, such as email customer service; it's best to limit the amount you check your email.
That's because constant interruptions such as email damage your productivity. Research shows that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to a task after a single interruption.
Turn off the email alerts on your computer, and you'll find you get a lot more done.
Sending Emails During Off Time
Tempting as it can be to deal with email during the evenings and over the weekend, it's a big mistake. And it's one that most of us make.
According to research by GFI Software, four in five working age Americans check their work email outside of work hours.
Yes, many of us have heavy workloads. But the frequency with which we check our email likely bears a strong relation to the fact that email is highly addictive. It's very difficult to switch off. We kid ourselves that we're being productive, which is a mistake.
Being connected around the clock actually makes you less productive. As Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project writes:
A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.
Only by disconnecting from your email can you have time for genuine relaxation and renewal.
There's another disadvantage to responding to emails when you should be chilling out. It signals to your colleagues and your boss that you're available anytime. If you don't respect your own work-life balance, other people won't either.
Of course, there will be times when you're overloaded with work. If you really need to write emails late at night, use a scheduling service such as Boomerang to make them go out the following morning. You'll look more professional and you'll at least be showing some respect for your work-life boundaries.
Writing Too Much
Writing long emails is a huge waste of time. It wastes your time in writing them, and it wastes your recipients' time in working out how to respond.
What's more, long emails create productivity blocks. Rather than helping to move projects along, long emails are more likely to hold them back. That's because a long email signals to the person receiving it: "File this and deal with it later."
Being Lazy With Your Attachments
Attachments are an unfortunate necessity. Unfortunate because they make email more complicated. But they are necessary because we often need them to get our work done.
Common mistakes include:
- Forgetting the attachment. This is so common that it's usually forgiven with little fuss. Gmail even provides a handy reminder.
- Attaching too much and leaving the recipient to work out what's relevant. Unless it's the recipient's job to do your filing for you, sort your attachments before you send them, and only send what they need.
- Attaching what should be in the body of the email. If you're using an attachment to share a message, then the message should be in the email.
Sending Personal Emails From Your Work Account
Using your work email to send personal messages is unnecessary and unprofessional.
Many workplaces frown on using work resources for personal reasons. And email is a work resource.
Don't make the mistake of thinking your work email is private. Chances are, your employer tracks every email you send. And if an email you send raises a red flag, it will end up in your boss's inbox. You could face a reprimand or even lose your job.
In other words, if you wouldn't want your boss to read it, don't write it, and certainly don't send it.
Missing Out on the Subject Line
You want people to read your emails, right? Then you should always include a relevant subject line.
As well as encouraging the recipient to open the email, a suitable subject line allows you to track the various conversations taking place in your email inbox.
You want to fire off emails quickly, so you use abbreviations, such as: FYI, BTW, PFA, FWIW, or IMHO.
They might help you speed an email off your keyboard, but they're unlikely to help your readers. Not everyone knows how to follow email abbreviations.
If you're such a slow typist that it really saves you time to type in short form, then consider using autocomplete software, which will automatically expand abbreviations.
Failing to Proofread
Mistakes in your email show a lack of respect for the recipient. A mistake says: "You're not worth my time to get this right."
Check and double-check spelling and grammar. As spell-check is built in to most email clients these days, there's no excuse for basic typos.
Failing to Use a Signature
An email signature saves you a few seconds with every email you write. That might not sound like much, but if you send over 100 emails a day, then a signature could help you reclaim 30 minutes of lost time every week.
On top of that, if you work for yourself, a signature is an excellent promotional tool. Be sure to include a link to your website and your Twitter feed.
What Email Mistakes Frustrate You?
What email mistakes do you find most frustrating? Are there any that you're particularly prone to? Let us know in the comments section below.
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