Gone are the days when our written communication was relegated to pen and paper. We’ve exchanged ink for key strokes and the turnaround time for messages across time and space to seconds instead of a day or longer. In my own inbox and outbox, hundreds of messages are exchanged each day. With so many words flying around, it can get easy to slip up and forget that each conversation needs to be constructed, managed, and closed with care – even if it is happening from your smartphone.
What your emails say (or don’t say) is important to solidify your ability to be an effective communicator. It’s easy to misconstrue tone or allow the business of being busy interrupt your ability to be clear, professional, and courteous in the language of Outlook. Here are five tried and true ways to improve your email communication skills and deepen your professional relationships.
Here are five ways to immediately and easily increase your email IQ.
1. Read Before You Reply
You’ve been running in and out of meetings all morning. You sit down to catch up on email and start firing off emails, problem is, you’re five exchanges behind. The item has already moved further down the field. Reading all the previous communications should always be your first instinct. Taking some time to scan your messages to find the most recent can eliminate several negative outcomes including being wrong, misinformed, or outdated. Always build your communication on a firm foundation of having the latest and greatest. That takes an investment in actively managing your inbox.
Tip: If you use Microsoft Outlook, group your emails by “Conversation” to help avoid this common email pitfall.
2. Ask Questions Before Making Assumptions
If you aren’t clear on someone’s point, ask. Leading off with, “I was reading your email and wasn’t entirely sure I was following the math. Can you walk me through how you arrived on that number?” is much more collaborative than, “That can’t be right.” Understand where your colleague is coming from before you start assuming how they arrived at a conclusion. They may have some information you don’t or they may be wrong like you think. Give them a chance to answer your questions before you go down the wrong path.
3. Mind Your Email Tone
What you say and HOW your message heard is not always congruent. How a written message is interpreted can get dicey. Particularly if there is an issue at hand or a disagreement. Ensure that your tone is always professional, respectful and courteous. Emails are written conversations. Your tone is important. If you find yourself pounding the keys with a response, take a moment to re-read your text and ensure that there is no opportunity for you to be accused of being anything but respectful and helpful. If you’re offering suggestions, make sure they are constructive and offer solutions and don’t just point out faults or issues. ONLY USE ALL CAPS IF YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO ASSUME YOU ARE SHOUTING.
Tip: If you find yourself being accused of a short or curt approach, write the body of the email you would normally write and then go back into the message and include an opening and closing sentence to tie it up into a full conversation.
4. Stay on Message for Your Audience
Knowing your audience is critical. Some individuals prefer context and detailed email messages, whereas others would prefer a phone call if the message is longer than a paragraph. Take the time to know the difference. If your audience doesn’t like a lot of text, construct graphs or visuals to illustrate your point. That being said, don’t undercut your message either. Few people can construct an action plan if your email is an incomplete thought or the ask is fuzzy. That will simply lead to MORE emails to get clarity. Your goal is to get your message communicated completely – there are a variety of ways to accomplish that. Focus on what you are trying to communicate, craft your message as a complete thought, and re-read it to make sure it accomplishes that objective before you hit “send.”
Tip: Do not “REPLY ALL” if your response need only be heard by the original sender or someone on the distribution list. There is nothing worse than an unnecessary string of emails not everyone needs or wants to read.
5. Know When to Abandon an Email Thread
For my team, that is two exchanges. If you can’t get your email exchange resolved in two responses, pick up the phone or call a meeting. A two-minute phone call or 15 minute meeting can accomplish a lot that several email exchanges might not. Follow up the verbal exchange with an email summary to ensure that you all heard and agreed to the same thing to close the loop, but don’t be afraid to break out of the email grind and have a conversation.
Emails are a necessary means of communication in the office but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of well-constructed and effective communication. It is easy to get caught up in an email culture trap, where we communicate back and forth without ever saying a word. Remember that conversations can greatly alleviate confusion and can deepen professional relationships. By deviating from the conventional email approach from time to time can not only help you communicate your message but can also enhance your network and your email reputation.