Writing Style – Readers’ Pet Peeves Regarding Emails

I recently asked people to send me their pet peeves with regard to emails. My pet peeve was — and is — people who don’t put their phone numbers on their emails. Several BizWritingTip readers supported me.

Marina H. went one step further. Her peeve was people who not include the extension, forcing people to go through a corporate directory. Press one for …

However, the number one complaint — as expected — was receiving too many unneeded messages because senders either “replied to all” or copied people on messages. Kim H. summed up many readers’ thoughts when she wrote: “I can’t tell you how many emails I have deleted that have no interest to me whatsoever, professionally or personally. This just wastes my time!”

The second most frequent complaint was in regard to people who sit near you but insist on sending emails. John W. wanted to know “why would someone walk to my desk and ask me why I hadn’t responded to his message sent five minutes earlier?”

The third most common pet peeve was a surprise. Beverley M. echoed several respondents when she complained about “People who send a thank you for every little notice. This means I have yet another e-mail to open and then just delete.”

Two other common peeves can be linked together: people who reply to emails leaving on the original attachments or failing to remove lengthy earlier messages. Laura E. advised: “When responding to an email, delete the attachment. The original sender and all recipients have a copy already.”

On the other hand, two people complained about getting short answers without the original message so they weren’t sure what the message was regarding. BizWritingTip’ advice: Leave the original message on if the reader will need it. Otherwise, get rid of it.

Other complaints in no particular order were:

No subject lines
Subject lines that were too vague
Bright, articulate people who send undecipherable messages
Lengthy paragraphs
No spacing between paragraphs
Email blasts saying you will be out of the office (instead of using the out of office feature)
Not using the out of office feature if you are away
Lengthy emails with the action request buried at the bottom
Motivational thoughts or proverbs as part of the signature
Colourful fonts and backgrounds
Misspelling of my name (and anyone else’s)
Any email longer than two paragraphs
Not copying secretaries who manage executives’ calendars when setting up meetings
Using emails to relay sensitive information
Not deleting sensitive information from emails that are being forwarded to a third party
Unrecognizable short forms and acronyms
Out-of-date signature boxes

Writing Style – McLuhan and Emails

Emails have only been an official tool of the workplace since the mid 90s. However, the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan seemed to be referring to them in the 60s when he said, “We shape the tools and they in turn shape us.”

Emails were designed to make us more productive. We can send and receive information at the touch of a button. We can write joint reports with people in other offices – or even countries. If someone is “on the road,” no problem. We’ll just send him an email and expect a reply within a few hours. And we can ignore time zones. They are no longer a communications problem.

Moreover, if we think of an idea or a problem to address when office hours are over, we can pull out our laptops/Blackberries and handle it immediately.

But McLuhan was right. This productivity tool is also shaping us. There is more stress in the workplace today because of emails. People are overusing them — sending both relevant and irrelevant messages with little thought. The number one complaint people have with emails is that there are just too many. In fact, handling emails has added one hour to the workday. (If you did the math of this, you’ll be amazed at how much of a company’s corporate payroll goes toward the handling of emails.)

Part of the problem with emails is that business people have not been officially trained on how and when to use emails. They don’t know how to mange their inboxes. And they have not been taught that the rules for letters do not work for emails, nor do they understand that tone is much more important with emails than with other forms of writing.

Emails are a wonderful tool. But they are forcing us to think outside the standard writing/organizing boxes we have previously relied on for business communications.

Writing Style – Why the Rules for Letters Don’t Apply to Emails

We are all familiar with letters. They are a traditional form of communications. However, emails are recently new to the business scene and require their own email-centric form of writing and organizing.

Why? Emails were never designed to be a formal method of communication.

When emails came into being in the early 90s, they were conceived to be a quick form of communication. You ask. I answer. They were not designed to replace formal letters but to provide a speedy response to a quick off-the-cuff question. They have since become an accepted way of communicating on all levels of the business world. But the writing style has never been elevated to a formal, pompous one.

Note, an informal style does not equate to sloppy. Sloppy emails will not get you anywhere. When I talk about an informal style, I mean short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, active voice sentences and personal pronouns. Abbreviations and acronyms – as long as the reader understands them – are permissible. Spelling and grammar errors are not.

The word “Dear” is traditional in a letter. Not to use it, would be considered discourteous. However, never use it in a North American email. It is considered outdated and overly formal – not reflective of the U.S. and Canadian business cultures.

But an email should start with a greeting – just as if you were meeting the person for the first time that day. You can be specific and start with the person’s name – first name only if you are friendly, both names if you want to be more formal – or be more generic and start with “hello,” “hi,” “good day,” or something similar.

Email Tip – Out-of-Office Messages

Gillian’s question: “I am wondering about including the reason for your absence in an out-of-office message if it is of a personal nature other than vacation. Do you require a reason such as a death in the family, medical or maternity leave?  Is it fair or acceptable to say ‘… for personal reasons …’?”

BizWritingTip response: There are no specific rules regarding out-of-office replies. However, I don’t believe in using personal information in generic business emails. The people you work with directly will most likely know why you are away anyway. And as Voltaire said, “The secret of being tiresome is in telling everything.”

In addition, you never know who will end up reading your notices. (Thieves have been known to use personal information gained in auto-replies and to cross reference it to target empty houses.)

Here are two out-of-office replies that I consider professional.

Examples

Thank you for your message. I am out of the office until Monday, January 18. In my absence, please contact name, phone number and email address.

I am sorry I cannot respond to you immediately, but I am out of the office from January 5 to January 16. I will review your message upon my return. If you need immediate assistance, please contact name, phone number and email address.

Do Not

  1. Make jokes or say “I am probably by the pool drinking a pina colada while you are reading this.”
  2. Use asterisks, extra punctuation, or text messaging short hand (r instead of are). They are not appropriate and probably do not meet your corporate standards.

Example (incorrect)

………………… on holidays in Panama until January 30, 2011. 🙂 🙂 🙂

****************** need help *********** call Pam at 416-214-5677.


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Email Tip – Organizing Letters and Emails

How do people read letters and emails? Remember today’s readers are skimmers, and they want key information quickly. They also try to quickly prioritize a message to determine how much time they need to spend on it.??Because letters have been around so long, people are familiar with their layout. Busy people tend to read the first paragraph and, if the information seems relevant, they will move to the last paragraph to see if they have to take any action. If they can see how the message applies to them, they will then read the middle paragraphs.

But this is a print document. An email is read differently. People read the first paragraph and then decide whether they need to read further or whether they can hit the delete key. Often times, they don’t even get to the last paragraph.

Therefore, the key to a good mail is to put the action you need taken in the first paragraph. From there, the details you use should be put in a descending order of importance – the same as newspaper article.

In my workshops, I tell participants that the last line of a good, professional letter – not one with a clichéd ending – is often the best line to open an email with.

Email Tip – Closing an Email

Karen’s question: “I receive numerous emails daily from staff and other community contacts who end their messages with ‘cheers’ or ‘thanks much.’ Whatever happened to closing with ‘sincerely’ or a simple ‘thank you’? What is the appropriate way of ending an internal email or one received by a fellow service worker from outside your business?”

BizWritingTip response: Emails were designed to get away from the formality of letters. Therefore, “sincerely” is considered too ceremonial for most emails.

When you end an email, the complimentary closing line should be based on your relationship with the reader. If I send a message to senior management or to someone outside my organization, I use a more formal close.

Examples of Formal Close for an Email

Regards

Best wishes

Thank you

Note: Yes, you can say “Best regards.” It is not my personal choice, but there is nothing wrong with it.

If I write to a colleague within my company, I am less formal.

Examples of a Neutral Close for an Email

Thanks

Cheers

If I send an email to a close friend who works for the same organization, I can be very casual and use an ending that means something to the two of us.

Examples of a Casual Close for an Email

Thanks much

TGIF (Thank God, it’s Friday)

TTFN (Ta, ta for now)

Adios

Ciao

Note: Never use a casual closing when writing to an external reader or to a senior manager.

I know some of you are wondering “why bother putting a closing line on at all.” There are two reasons: First, it just comes across as courteous. If you were leaving a meeting, you would not normally just walk away. You’d probably say “good bye” or “see you later.” The same holds true for emails. You want to sound like one human being talking to another.

Second, most organizations have long disclaimers that get added to messages when they are sent externally. The closing line signals to the reader that the message is actually over. The print below is a legal requirement.