Do You Make These 3 Big Email Mistakes?
How many emails do you receive in a week? And how many of those are notable for being particularly bad – or even cringe-worthy?
Over my 24-year corporate career and now in the entrepreneurial world, I’ve received a fair number of emails. I’m afraid to count, but I’m guessing it’s over 1 million. And these have included a multitude of no-no’s, mistakes, and perhaps even sins.
The thing is, every time you send an email, you’re communicating part of your personal brand. So, at a minimum, it pays to make sure your emails are not undermining you.
Emails Errors Can Become Career Limiting Moves
There are the obvious “Career Limiting Moves” that we all want to avoid.
For example, I had to fire a junior analyst who breached the firm’s Code of Conduct by forwarding an email from a friend at another investment bank that contained confidential information. She did it without thinking, as the email also contained a joke, which was what she was seeking to share.
Or writing an email that you expect to remain confidential but ends up on the front page of the newspaper (or its online equivalent), pressing “send” on that angry ranting email that you later regret, or getting into a heated debate over email and, worse yet, replying to all when you do.
The Less Obvious Errors Can Undermine You Too
But it’s those more subtle errors that can creep up on you and quietly limit your career. Often, it’s those things you do (or don’t do) on a daily basis, especially when it’s part of your daily routine, that you don’t realize are tripping you up. And email happens to be one of those things that we take for granted and do without thinking.
I’m sharing this because these mistakes are extremely easy to commit yet can make you look bad. And I don’t want you to be blissfully unaware in scoring what’s called an “own goal” in soccer (a.k.a. football outside the US).
Unfortunately, I’ve made these mistakes myself, and know just how easy it is to fall into these miss-able traps.
Three Big Email Mistakes That Quietly Limit Your Career
When it comes to emails, here are the three types of worst offenders in my book.
The easy thing is to write what comes to mind, without organizing your thoughts into a coherent storyline. That’s how some people write emails – in a stream of consciousness as it comes to them.
Basically, it’s the lazy person’s approach. Or, worse yet, it gives the impression of a disorganized mind, and someone who isn’t a strategic thinker. And none of these are helpful to your career ambitions.
Instead of making your reader untangle the various strands to make sense of it all, take a step back and figure out which items are most important, and lay out your case in a logical fashion. You’ll make a better impression, and increase the odds that your reader will “get” your point or request, and act on it.
Another mortal sin in emails is to say too much. These are information-packed emails that require lots of scrolling. And they’re often formatted as one big chunk of text – super long paragraphs, no extra rows in between, and no bullet points. They’re hard to look at and not at all inviting to read.
For me, these kinds of emails tend to come out when I’m deep into the details and emotionally attached to the work. Surely, people need all the gory details to comprehend the situation? Wrong.
Instead, when there’s much to convey, get in the habit of writing an executive summary of 3-5 lines, perhaps with bullet points. And make sure to have the “ask” clearly labeled. Then, leave the rest for a “background” or “context” section below your signature for those who want to know more. Be sure to break up the section into chunks, using sub-headings or bullets to make your points easy to grasp.
That way, you show you’re a strategic communicator who’s also on top of the detail.
I’m always surprised when people neglect to communicate with the level of professionalism and seniority that they aspire to.
For example, I’ve received emails from early and mid career people who want to earn promotion to bigger roles, yet their emails are strewn with text language (“how r u?”), emoticons, and spelling or grammatical errors.
What am I supposed to think? If this is how they communicate with me, then what makes me think they will shape up when they connect with other senior people? I can tell you that I am not going to use up any personal capital introducing them to people I know. There’s just too much risk.
So, take that extra few minutes to check things over (and no, spell check is not enough – it won’t catch mistakes in grammar and word usage). As you read your own email, ask yourself whether you would be happy to send it to the head of your organization or a potential client.
You never know when one of your email recipients may be in a position to recommend you for that big opportunity. So put your best foot forward, even in those daily emails.
Make it easy for the reader
Email can play an important role when it comes to being an effective communicator and managing your personal brand. What’s tricky is that it has more downside than you think.
So even though you’re busy, it’s well worth the effort to make sure your emails are supporting your brand, and not working against you.
That means doing more of the work so your reader has to do less. And if you need to create more time to do this, try writing fewer emails, but make the ones you do write easy for people to look at, read, and absorb.
The payoff comes when your professionalism leads people to conclude you’re worth supporting.
I’d love to know what you think, so leave a comment below.
Thank you May for the post! It contains really useful and practical tips to help improve email writing, which becomes more and more important nowadays. The suggestions in “The Monolith” section is extremely helpful to solve the problem when email is the only way to communicate some crucial information to a group of people before we can actually call a meeting to discuss further. Also thanks for reminding everyone that any email may become a record that leads you to opportunities or mishaps. If you ever follow up on this post, could you add some good and bad examples to demonstrate these ideas?
Hi Zhen, great suggestion regarding adding some good and bad examples. Let me see what I can find – and “sanitize” to protect the innocent before sharing! Glad you found the Monolith suggestions useful. Best, May
Great topic May! I was CEO of a company for 11 years with multiple locations and multiple business units. I found myself running the company from email; which can be a fatal mistake. Balance is key. When driving efforts, if things cannot be spelled out in “quick reading” bullet points, a leader is wise to take notes, and choose WHEN and WHAT to write. Often, human interaction is more time efficient and effective: “This is a great. I’ll come by later today…or this week…to discuss. It’s worth a good brainstorm.”
Talking about things is so much more effective and uplifting than email chains.
Also, letting a correspondence work it’s natural course without jumping in to solve it. Give the issue time to work its way out…but don’t drop the ball if it’s important. Follow up at some point to see how things worked out, and address solving if it didn’t.
HUGE TOPIC!!!! Kudos.
Hi Erika, Many thanks for sharing your experiences. I like your suggested reply that gets people talking live. And your point about “letting a correspondence work its natural course without jumping in to solve it” is a great one too. Sometimes it’s important to just wait and watch — and you’re right to flag the point about not dropping the ball. That requires some organization to achieve.
Great wisdom – thank you!
I’m so glad you picked this topic! In an age where so much of our ability to communicate is showcased electronically your article should be attached to every keyboard, monitor or mouse pad.
The monolith is a favorite. Even when the situation calls for a lot of detail it must still be thoughtfully structured and broken down into chewable chunks. It shows awareness and consideration for the reader’s time and the fact they have other topics on their plate besides mine. Making the “ask” clear is a godsend as well!
One of your honorable mentions, “The email war” can also ruin your personal brand. In the middle of a production outage I was one of the guilty parties in a large audience debate. After several rounds of back and forth our CIO had seen enough. She typed a one line message, copying the full audience that simply stated:
“Chris, Mike. In the name of all that is holy someone pick up the phone and fix this.” We got the message.
Great to read your views here. You’ve hit on the underlying theme, which is to keep the reader’s interests in mind and show respect for their time.
And thanks for sharing the hugely useful story about your “email war” experience – it must be one of those unforgettable learning experiences, and we appreciate learning from you. I’m also thinking that’s a great line to use when I’m witness to people on my team conducting email warfare!
Your comments are appreciated.
Great blog May. Email is part of our everyday life but everyone makes errors when using it and it really is an art to make it work for you and not against you.
As a lawyer who specialises in advising senior executives on employment law and anything else to do with their working life, I’d add two points.
First, just because you mark something private or confidential, it could still potentially have to be disclosed in any future court or tribunal case where it is relevant. The word ‘confidential’ has no magic powers when it comes to litigation. The case may be one brought by someone else – a client, supplier or fellow employee. So be very careful what you say. Your brand could be damaged badly if it is felt you created or exacerbated a problem that could have been avoided.
Secondly, when relationships become strained between employer and employee, for whatever reason, nowadays it is very common for the employer to forensically examine computers for email and other misuse. The employer’s aim is often to see if there has been gross misconduct and of course, dismissal for gross misconduct can be career devastating.
The murky line between private and business email use is often at the heart of such misconduct. And the ability to review personal emails is wider than you might think.
All of which is a reason to be fully familiar with your employer’s computer policy and follow it to the letter. Just because you know others get away with breaching it will not necessarily get you off the hook when the chips are down.
I could go on as there’s so much more to say! But I’ll take May’s advice on board and not write a monolith!
Thanks again May for highlighting such an important topic.
Many thanks, Elaine. We are privileged to receive such wise counsel from someone who has seen it all – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the career ending. We would all be well advised to heed your words!
Your point about the murky line between private and business email has certainly come up in lofty circles, including the US Presidential race. And I agree that it pays to be careful what you “say” – especially in such a permanent format as email.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
Hi May, thanks for another useful post! Not rambling is very important. I have found that busy people, especially when they are checking email on their phones, simply don’t read emails completely or thoroughly. One other tip I’d add is to make sure you are spelling your recipient’s name correctly. You would think this is a no-brainer but I cannot count how many times people have gotten my name wrong in an email (Dianne, Diana, Dana, etc.). I work in marketing/communications, so a lot of these people are writers and editors who should know better! It makes me feel disrespected and taints the whole email in a negative way.
Great points, especially about getting the recipient’s name right. In fact, you’ve reminded me of advice from a mentor who once told me that if there’s only one thing you can check before you hit send, it should be the name of the recipient.
Now that you mention it, I realize that I often get emails addressed to “Mary”. While that’s a perfectly fine name, it isn’t mine. And yes, it reflects badly on the sender. That said, I do forgive people who later come back and apologize after recognizing their mistake. But that’s a rare occurrence…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!