Email and your reputation

A couple of months ago, the CMO of a tech startup shared Surviving Email Politics at Work via LinkedIn.

Email is an extension of you, part of your reputation. What you say and how you conduct yourself over email is the professional “you.” Managing this carefully is important.

I couldn’t say it better. Today, I’m sharing some stories about the bad things that can happen based on what you put into your emails at work. (Tip o’ the hat to Erica over at LinguaDigitalis for sending many of these my way.)

no cap emailJeff Pearlman tells the story of a hopeful college intern who failed to get his dream job because he sent a thank-you via email from his phone. And didn’t capitalize the first letter of Thursday. This one hurts my heart. But the message is clear. Professional email sent via mobile devices is especially prone to make you look UNprofessional.

A financial controller in New Zealand was fired for sending email perceived as confrontational because she used bold, all caps, and red type. More on this story from The New Zealand Herald, which includes a cornucopia of entertaining stories about email blunders. As Leslie O’Flavahan says, “Back away from the caps lock” to create a professional impression.

emailstory1Business Insider published a collection of Infamous Wall Street Quotes that included this one from an email sent by an employee at Standard & Poor’s before the financial crisis:

Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of card falters.

I don’t recommend you spend too much time reading the examples at Business Insider. They’re depressing. But they make my point that what you put into an email represents you as a person–not just as a writer. I believe the S&P employee was a greedy jerk. And I’ve never met him/her. All I know about the individual is the result of that sentence from an email. So think carefully about how you want to be represented before you hit send.

For a more humorous slant, you can read about the BuzzFeed reporter who mistakenly emailed his entire company, explaining he would be late to work because the water heater at his apartment wasn’t working. This is the kind of thing you can get away with only once. (And then only if your workplace includes a lot of nice people.) It takes a long time to overcome the negative image such a mistake creates.

Bloomberg Businessweek produced a recent piece on the Five Worst Emails You Can Receive at Work. The biggest blunder: tone-deafness. Confirmation that you must control your tone to avoid negative attention from readers. What you meant is not always what your reader thinks you mean. This is why audience analysis is so crucial. As the writer of Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions wrote in Psychology Today,

What was written: yep

Tone Interpretation: I’m really busy. I don’t have time for you, and by the way, you’re not worthy of a capital Y.

What could have been written: Yes.

Your audience determines your reputation based on what you put into that email message. To succeed, you have to be able to predict how they will interpret what you wrote.

There are those who say email is dying. But that day is not today. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that we spend about one-quarter of our work life (650 hours per year) dealing with email. If email dies, then a new medium/tool for communicating will create an artifact that represents you. Sorry to disappoint.

The lesson. Write work emails only when you’re calm and are willing to be at least moderately thoughtful about what you’re doing. If your reader is an important person (your client) or a stranger (a potential boss), don’t compose your message on a mobile device. To protect your reputation, think carefully about your purpose and audience and then

  • develop the right content
  • organize it efficiently
  • present it with professional style and mechanics

Get clear about your purpose before you write for workplace readers

Speedometer - Reaching Your GoalPro workplace writers are strategic. Period.

They begin a document with a predetermined goal and a plan for achieving it. Bryan Garner, author of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, makes the point when he says,

Many people begin writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, their readers don’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with the message.

You may think you have to write to know what you want to say. That’s fine. As long as you understand that sort of writing is just for you. It might count as a very rough draft. But it’s not for an audience. It’s expression. Not communication. The contrast between the two has occupied those interested in the arts as well as in communication for eons.

The downside to being a strategic writer, like being a strategic business leader, is a committment to spend time planning before you act and then holding yourself accountable while you do. With each email, proposal or report you create, you have to decide how important its effectiveness is to you and the organization you represent.

At this point, I have to remind you that no document can be fast, cheap, and good. When the cost/benefit of a document matters, you have to be strategic by planning. (See how intense planning a short document can be by reading about how much planning went into creating a mortgage disclosure form.) Getting clear about your purpose is a critical part of planning.

Purpose is explained in Chapter 1 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using the book in a formal setting, you’ll find lots of exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you identify purposes for writing in different workplace situations. But here are some additional resources to help you learn more about this aspect of writing like a pro:

  • a sample document
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this email created by me based on an actual student’s response to an assignment from a 1999 textbook titled, Scenarios for Technical Communication, by Stone & Kynell. I’ve adapted it specifically to help your think about purpose in workplace documents. A few details about the context of the document:

  • Writer: a project manager for a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s owner
  • Bottom line message: one project is over budget and behind schedule

 

Video Tutorial

The email and some other examples are included in the 8-minute video below. This is my second attempt at a PowToon video so I welcome comments about how well it works.

Related Readings

There are a handful of posts here at Pros Write that deal with purpose in workplace documents. Just search for “purpose” or “planning” in the field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (2015). Thinking and interacting like a leader: The TILL system for leadership communication. Chicago: Parlay Press.

Quinn et al. (1991). A competing values framework for analyzing presentational communication in management contexts. Journal of Business Communication28, pp. 213232.

Cut your email into three chunks for better digestion

Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: 27147 via Compfight cc

Travis, a former student who now works as an IT consultant, asked for a summary of what we taught him about developing and organizing content in emails ’cause he wants to share it with his project leaders. (Seems they had asked him how he knew what the majority of new grads don’t.)  Although I’ve written here about email requests and different aspects of organizing content, I couldn’t find a single post to meet his needs.  So I whipped up this one.

Let me start by showing you an announcement I recently received at work. It was NOT easy to digest.

This message was a blob I couldn’t begin to swallow. I mean I could read the words. It had well-formed sentences. It had three short paragraphs. But I had no clue what it meant. Because it was sent by a top administrator, I felt some obligation to figure it out. I actually read the entire message. And I talked to fellow employees. No one had a clue. Most had simply trashed the message without reading more than the first few words.

Note the problem isn’t one of brevity. The announcement was brief.

Here’s a revised version of the announcement I’ll use to describe the three chunks needed to help your readers digest an email easily.

Chunk #1: State your bottom line message clearly as an obligatory appetizer.

The bottom line message in the revised version of the announcement is stated early. And twice.

  1. Subject line: Directions for Office of Internal Audit Requests for All University Employees
  2. First sentence: I want to clarify the role of the University’s Office of Internal Audit on our campus and direct all University employees to cooperate with their staff fully.

The first chunk of your email must establish your purpose in communicating with your readers. Stating it clearly requires that you can actually verbalize it before you hit the send button. The critical problem with the original announcement was that it did not explicitly state the bottom line message. There was a required chunk of information missing entirely!

Stating the bottom line in the first chunk of your email requires you to take responsibility for making the message easier for your readers to digest. Even if the writer had included a bottom line message at the end of the original announcement, it would have created indigestion. Believe it or not, there are few situations when a delay in stating your bottom line is warranted.  (See the video tutorial on placement of the bottom line for more help.)

Chunk #2: Provide details or other information supporting your bottom line as the main course.

The details in the revised announcement are nearly identical in content to the original. The details about cooperation for all employees appear in one paragraph. The details about cooperation for all managers appear in a separate paragraph. The content here is brief. But you can provide a load of detail in the second chunk of your email if you make it easy for readers to skim and scan. (See the video tutorial on format for help.) The more complex the second chunk is, the more important it is to provide a wrap-up, further analysis, justification, or something else to tie the details together.

In the revised announcement, I also altered the writer’s style from the original to make it more personal. I couldn’t stop myself.

  • Original bureaucratic tone: University personnel are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.
  • Revised personal tone: As a University employee, you are expected to collaborate with the Office of Internal Audit during an audit review.

That personal tone is more likely to succeed if you want readers to interpret what you have to say as directions. (See the video tutorial on tone for more on this topic.)

Chunk #3: Include a call to action for dessert.

Readers of the original announcement received nothing after their main course. Readers of the revised email received just a little something as the third chunk of the writer’s message.  Call it lagniappe. They were thanked. And they were told where to go if they had questions.

This chunk isn’t strictly necessary in a downward message like the announcement email (where the writer has more power relative to the readers). But it makes sense to create goodwill that may help you get readers to pay attention to what you say in the future. After all, the language you use with subordinates determines whether they will follow you.

The original announcement was not easily digested because it used three paragraphs, but not the three-chunk format. Thanks to Travis for requesting this summary guidance for writing emails. We’re delighted he’s not the cause of indigestion in his workplace . . . Oh, how we LOVE confirmation that we’re teaching the right stuff!

Research Support

If you’re interested in the research that backs up our guidance, you could start with the following.

Fielden, J.S. & Dulek, R.E. (1984). How to use bottom-line writing in corporate communications. Business Horizons, July-August, pp. 25-30.

Evans, S. (2012). Designing email tasks for the Business English classroom: Implications from a study of Hong Kong’s key industries. English for Specific Purposes, 31, pp. 202-212.

A good example of bad customer service writing

I recently discovered Leslie O’Flahavan’s Writing Matters blog and thought I’d share her analysis of some bad writing. Follow the link to see how she re-wrote the email. I look forward to reading more of Leslie’s work.

Text of Customer Service Email Leslie Explains Why This is Bad Customer Service Writing Click on the Links for Tutorials in Each Area
Thank you for taking the time to contact Clinique.
 I am sorry to learn of your disappointing experience with our Quickliner For Eyes in Smoky Brown. Please be assured that . . . It uses an officious, blowhard-y tone. This e-mail should be shorter, simpler, and more personal. Cut the words “Please be assured that…” Nobody but a lawyer in a PBS miniseries talks that way. Managing Style: Tone
. . . all of our product formulas are extensively researched and evaluated prior to approval for manufacture. Part of this testing is devoted to determining the packaging that will best protect the specific formulation during shipment and while in use. The Quickliner For Eyes is an air-sensitive product, and will dry out quickly if exposed to the air for long periods of time. It is therefore important for the product to be tightly closed after each usage so that its air-tight seal is fully engaged. It gives a huffy answer to questions the customer didn’t ask. I didn’t ask, “Do you research your products extensively?” And I also didn’t ask, “Is it OK to leave the eyeliner cap off?” If Clinique wants to tell me to put the cap on firmly each time I use the eyeliner, that’s OK. Just don’t load up the email with information I don’t care about or need. Developing Content: Informative Prose
Nevertheless, we regret to hear of your experience. It blames the customer. When I read the sentence, “Nevertheless, we regret to hear of your experience,” I got mad. What is Clinique saying? “Even though you don’t know how to care for your eyeliner, and you probably left it out in the sun, in the desert, with the cap off, we will grudgingly send you a new one.” Look, the eyeliner isn’t a big-ticket item. It costs $16. But I have been buying about four of these per year since 1999. (I will NOT do the math. I don’t want to know how much I’ve spent on eyeliner.) Do not blame the customer when a product is of poor quality. Just be gracious. Just give; don’t blame. Managing Style: Tone
Since your satisfaction is important to us, I am happy to send you a complimentary replacement Quickliner For Eyes in Smoky Brown. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery. It buries the information the customer cares about most. I am glad Clinique is going to replace my eyeliner. That’s decent and generous. That information should be at or near the top of the email. Customers want the bottom line up front. Organizing Content: Bottom Line Placement
Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact Clinique. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns. You are valued as our consumer, and I hope you will continue to use and enjoy our products with confidence and satisfaction. It over-thanks the customer for writing. In this e-mail, I got thanked twice. Once is plenty. Remember, most customers aren’t happy they had to write at all. Managing Style: Tone
  It’s one huge, blocky paragraph. This email needs more white space, so I can see when the topic changes. It’s too much text at once. I am the opposite of motivated to read it. Organizing Content: Format

The genre of email requests

email today by BobAlGreene

It’s been a while since I offered up a post on writing a specific genre.  (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by “genre,” read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) I thought I’d tackle email. Radicati Group, a technology market research company, estimated that nearly 90 BILLION business emails were sent a day in 2012. That must mean anybody reading this blog is dealing with a lot of email! No doubt that’s why there are gads of people talking about email etiquette: from Emily Post to MoneyWatch at CBS News to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

Here’s a nice set of interviews from Iowa State where professionals talk about the use of email in the workplace.

The Professional Connection: The Genre of Email from ELO Development 01 on Vimeo.

One of the professionals in the video notes that amateurs often misunderstand the level of formality appropriate in workplace email. She says using slang or texting shorthand makes others perceive you as immature (“amateur” in my lexicon) instead of professional. See the 2007 book, Send, for an entertaining look at email blunders. I wrote about the problem of college student email a couple of days ago.

But email isn’t really a genre.  It’s a medium or technology for communicating a message. Email can be used to communicate many different genres. One study by Goldstein and Sabin identified 12 of them: from cover letters to offers to requests. So I’m going to tackle email requests.

So what do we know about successful email requests? I’m combining what I’ve seen in several studies of rhetorical move structure into the table below. It shows that seven rhetorical moves occur in the corpus of email requests studied. Only one move — making the request (3) — is obligatory in a downward message (where the writer has  more power relative to the reader). In contrast, four are obligatory in an upward message.

Order Move Downward Recipient Upward Recipient Quality Indicators

1

Addressing recipient  Optional Obligatory Not casual unless close personal relationship

2

Providing background information  Optional Obligatory Conciseness & relevance

3

Making the request  Obligatory Obligatory Clarity

4

 

Convincing recipient to comply or justifying request  Optional Optional Obligatory for high-imposition requests

5

 

Elaborating the request  Optional Optional Obligatory for complex requests

6

 

Attending to recipient’s status   Optional  

7

Closing and signing off Optional Obligatory  

Let’s consider how this research applies to an example document. Here’s an email request slightly adapted from one created as exemplary by the writing consultants at Email Excellence. What moves do you find?

  • I see Move 1 (addressing the recipient). This move signals an attempt to personalize the message, and the use of first names suggests the writer knows the readers well.
  • I don’t see Move 2. This move isn’t obligatory for a downward message so it’s not a problem as long as the writer has more power than her readers.
  • I do see Move 3 (making the request). Actually, there are two requests. Research suggests high quality email communicates a request clearly. The writer included a preview statement at the very beginning of the email, saying she needed help on “two fronts.” The use of the two numbered headings makes the topic of the two requests clear. The requests themselves appear as the first sentence after each heading: (1) ” . . . I need you to send . . .” and (2) “Please schedule a meeting . . .”   Oh, I forgot to mention that the writer’s subject line states “ACTION REQUIRED.”  And the deadline for complying with the requests appears both in the subject line and at the end of the message. So I’d say the requests ought to be clear. (We can’t know without some input from the target readers.)
  • I see Move 4 (justifying the request). The sentence following the writer’s second request explains why compliance is important. Use of this move signals the writer’s willingness to explain why she needs to impose on the readers.
  • I also see Move 5 (elaborating on the request). See the bullet list explaining what is required to comply with the writer’s first request. Use of this move seems important as the request is at least somewhat complex.
  • I see no Move 6 or Move 7. Again, these moves aren’t required for a downward message.

I’d say this email request deserves to be called exemplary. And its writer a pro. It contains all of the required rhetorical moves (content/purpose in the appropriate order).   It uses several organizational elements (bottom line placement, paragraph unity, and format) to make the request clear. It signals the writer wanted to personalize the message for her readers. Its style (word choice and tone) and mechanics (punctuation) are business-like.

Just one caveat. It’s critical that the writer actually has more power than her readers. If not, the tone of the email request will be inappropriately authoritative. Minimally, the writer would need to add a little more background and some closing remarks to succeed in an upward message.

Now if I could just get students to see that their email requests are upward messages . . .

Email etiquette for students

emailMany college students misunderstand the level of formality appropriate in email to faculty and staff. The New York Times did an article on this topic way back in 2006. The situation hasn’t improved for me since then. If you teach and are frustrated by the email you receive from students, I’m making a plea to help them think about what their behavior communicates to others.

Share this video from the folks at Arizona State U’s Writing Center. You’ll be doing other instructors a favor. But most important — you’ll be helping amateurs learn they must adapt their writing if they want their future workplace colleagues to perceive them as professionals. Too many students continue to send email that signals immaturity when they enter the workforce. More on email at work tomorrow . . .

Photo Credit: Biscarotte via Compfight cc