Imagine this. You're invited to interview for a job that's ideal for you. You don't set an alarm the night before. You wake up late, and roll out of bed with no time to prepare. You throw on your dirty clothes you wore yesterday, and grab a slice of cold pizza for breakfast. You haven't even brushed your hair.
Or imagine this. You're invited to your boss's office to talk about an important project. If this project goes well, you could be promoted. Instead of paying attention to the conversation, you stare out of the window, tap your foot on the floor, and only offer a series of grunts in response to any suggestion your boss gives.
If you behaved like that, you'd deserve to be fired, not promoted.
You wouldn't turn up late and unkempt for an interview. And unless you've got a kamikaze approach to office politics, you don't ignore your boss when he's talking to you.
We spend hours practicing interview techniques. We fret over what we'll say in a meeting with our boss. So why don't we take the same level of care over writing emails? Or even when we do care, why don't emails have the impact we think they should?
One reason is that we're swimming in an email deluge. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average employee spends two and a half hours per day dealing with email. That's equivalent to 81 working days every year—or a quarter of your working life.
Meanwhile, research by techology research consultancy The Radicati Group found that the average business user sent or received 108 emails per day in 2013. That's set to rise to 116 emails per day by 2017.
Little wonder, then, that there are so many sloppily written emails floating through cyberspace. Who has the time to waste composing eloquent messages when there's so much to write?
On the other hand, if email is central to our lives, shouldn't it be a skill we've all mastered? If you're going to spend a quarter of your working life writing emails, then learning to do it effectively will make you more efficient and help you get ahead.
Think of it this way. If you spent a quarter of your working life giving presentations, wouldn't you learn everything you could about how to present? Or if you spent a quarter of your working life interacting with customers, you'd seek out every resource you could find on customer service, right?
So, what's different about email?
Wouldn't it be great to show that you're a true pro in every email you send? And even better if you write emails that people actually read and take action on?
Email matters. How you write your emails matters to the people receiving your emails. Even more importantly, your ability to write emails will have a huge influence on your career path. But don't take my word for it. Let's take a look at what the experts say. But first...
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Now let's learn all about why email writing skills are so critical.
Why Writing Good Emails is Vital for Your Career
Do you plan to get ahead at work? If you've got ambitions, then you'll need to learn how to write emails that get results.
As the Skills You Need website explains:
Being able to communicate effectively is the most important of all life skills... If you are applying for jobs or looking for a promotion with your current employer, you will almost certainly need to demonstrate good communication skills... As your career progresses, the importance of communication skills increases.
Email is how we spend most of our time communicating, so it's your greatest opportunity. It gives you two hours every day to demonstrate your communication skills to your current employer.
Need more convincing? Maggie Worth, Communications Director at the Univeristy of West Georgia, writes:
Employees who have demonstrated the ability to represent themselves and the company in a clear, compelling and professional manner are more likely to be chosen for advanced positions.
Dr. Stephanie Heald-Fisher, chair of the Graduate Program at Globe University, fruther explains how email is especially important for winning promotions:
In today’s business environment, regardless of the industry, communicating effectively typically means a heavy use of email and using email means being able to write... The email is often the first impression the receiver gains of the sender. A poorly written email results in a poor first impression.
Getting promoted is also impacted by writing skills. Good writing skills communicate intelligence, professionalism, and competency. Poor writing skills communicate a lack of intelligence, professionalism, and competency. Once again, your professional image is impacted by your writing skills. The better your skills are, the better your image is and the better your chances for promotion.
In other words, unless you learn to write clear, professional, intelligent emails, your co-workers and your boss will assume you're incompetant. You'll be forever stuck at the bottom of the career ladder.
And composing good email doesn't just mean you know how to write a sentence.
Doesn't Everyone Know How to Write Email?
Isn't writing email something everyone knows how to do? After all, in today's world, most of us know how to read and write. We know our spelling and grammar. Isn't that enough?
It's certainly true that anyone with rudimentary computer skills can compose and send an email. And anyone with basic social skills will know how to make sure their email isn't overtly insulting.
On the other hand, think of all the poorly written emails you've received in your life. They may have been grammatically correct. But they didn't make a whole lot of sense.
Just because a person can talk doesn't make them a good public speaker. Similiarly, just because a person can write doesn't mean they can write good emails.
Writing effective emails is a skill, and it's one you can learn. You'll need to practice too, but you've got a quarter of your working life to spend doing that. So why not spend some time getting to grips with the theory?
We'll dig into what makes emails effective in a moment. First, let's look at some of the biggest email mistakes.
Do You Write Disaster Emails Like These?
Like most people, I receive a lot of emails. Most of the emails I receive are effective. They make me feel good, and let me know the action I need to take. I look forward to responding, and I enjoy doing so.
Now and again, I receive emails that make me double take. "Did they really ask that?" I wonder. Or "Did they really say that?"
At the moment, I receive a managable level of emails, and I have a policy of responding to every individual email I receive. But there are times when I'd really rather not respond. This most often happens when I receive one of the following:
- An email from someone I don't know who fails to introduce themselves.
- An email that asks me for help without a "please" or a "thank you" (or other cues of courtesy).
- An email where the sender isn't clear on what they need from me. (They want me to mind read across cyberspace!)
- An email that only picks up on my mistakes without mentioning any good work that I've done.
The worst emails I receive are grumpy one liners from someone who's never contacted me before. If you're going to write to me, at least have the courtesy to use my name, and to introduce yourself.
It seems I'm not alone in receiving confusing or rude emails. A recent survey by Sendmail found that nearly two-thirds of us (64%) have sent or received an email that caused unintended anger or confusion. In Sendmail's survey, people were most upset by:
- Not receiving the replies they needed (51%).
- Unnecessary "Reply Alls" (25%);
- Confusing or vague messages (19%).
Writing ineffective emails isn't only damaging to your career prospects. It's also bad for your employer. Katharine Hansen, creative director of Quintessential Careers, explains:
E-mail is so heavily and globally used to communicate in the workplace... that unclear, garbled, poorly written e-mails waste time, money, and productivity.
Hopefully your emails aren't as bad as the ones I've outlined above. And hopefully your emails aren't making the recipients confused or angry.
If you believe your emails need work, don't panic! You can remedy the situation. Let's start by taking a look at why it's so easy for emails to leave a bad impression.
Your Emails Suffer From This—Like Everyone Elses
Have you ever spilt a drink down yourself before an important business meeting? Even after you cleaned up, you were sure everyone would notice. But no-one said a word.
That's called the spotlight effect, and everyone suffers from it. Psychologist Amie M. Gordon explains how it works:
We tend to overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others... We are anchored by our own experiences and we have trouble adjusting far enough away from them to accurately estimate how much attention other people are paying us.
In other words, we look at the world through tinted lenses, and we struggle to see the world from the point of view of other people.
When it comes to writing emails, that's a problem. We can write something that makes total sense in our own minds. But just because it makes sense to me doesn't mean it will make sense to you.
This is especially true when it comes to injecting emotion into our writing.
Lea Winerman of the American Psychological Association explains:
The reason for this communication disconnect... is egocentrism - the well-established social psychological phenomenon whereby people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how other people will interpret them.
Research shows that people overestimate their ability to convey an intended tone in an email message—whether that tone be sarcastic, funny or serious. People overestimate how well they can communicate a tone of voice in messages they send.
Truth is, detecting tone of voice in email is an almost impossible task. Studies found a 56% success rate in detecting tone of voice in email. That might sound okay, but it's actually only marginally better than chance.
What can be done about this? The answer is to write effective emails.
What Makes an Effective Email?
We've looked at why it's so important to write good emails, and at why emails so often fail. But how can you write good emails that are interpreted correctly and get results?
In this Tuts+ Business series, we'll be looking at a range of approaches you can take to writing effective emails. Once you're through the series, you'll have mastered the theory of email. And if your inbox is even close to typical, you'll have plenty of chance to practice.
To finish off this article, let's take a brief look at what makes an email work. Effective emails:
- Are focused on the recipient.
- Arouse attention before they're opened.
- Get opened and read.
- Are kind and respectful.
- Are written with correct spelling and grammar.
- Make the recipient feel good.
- Leave little or no room for interpretation (they're not meant to be literature!).
- Are as long as they need to be, and no longer.
- Have a clear call to action.
Are you ready to improve your email writing skills? Then stay tuned.
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Keep in mind that not only is writing effective emails important to master, but so to is learning how to manage your emails and keep your inbox organized.
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