The Most Disastrous E-Mail Mistakes, and How to Avoid Them

“Diamonds are forever. E-mail comes close.”

– June Kronholz

At sign on envelopeIn our modern age of communication, it’s not just what you say that can get you into trouble, but also what you write. Thanks to computers, Blackberries and cell phones, e-mail is questionably the primary means of communication for professionals everywhere. In 2007 alone, there will be an estimated 2.7 trillion e-mails exchanged, with even more to follow. While e-mail is convenient and easy to use, it’s also easy to abuse.

As an e-professional in today’s e-blissful world, the more you know now about e-mail habits, the less likely you will be to make an e-blunder down the road. With e-mail, there’s no undoing our mistakes; there’s only steadfast prevention. So here’s my inbox of e-mail mistakes and tips to keep you protected.

1. Subject line woes.

E-mail subject lines are as important as the messages themselves and the worst subject lines are empty ones. With the average individual receiving over one hundred e-mails per day, the subject header is essential if you want your message read any time soon. The subject line has become the hook.

Fix it: First off, always use a subject line, no matter how unoriginal you might be feeling. With that in mind, don’t use greetings like “Hi Dave” or “Hello Jasmine” as a subject because they carry no significance to your correspondence. Subject lines are meant to catch the eye of your recipient, so choose keywords that will reflect that. Your e-mail will have lots of competition.

2. Not accounting for tone.

When we talk to someone face-to-face, we have the benefit of physical gestures and tone of voice. Written words speak for themselves and are left completely to interpretation. In an e-mail exchange, it means that a sarcastic one-liner and a witty e-mail signature could be misconstrued as insults, regardless of the initial intention. E-mail tone is also hampered by jokes, slang and typing in caps — which is the written equivalent to shouting.

Fix it: There’s nothing wrong with being friendly, but stay within professional boundaries. You can do this by reading a past e-mail from your recipient and matching their tone in your reply, instead of trying to invent your own. If they’re talkative and informal, go with it. If not, stay brief and professional. Sticking to the essentials and being polite will keep your tone clean and your overall exchange pleasant.

3. Writing the “Great American Novel.”

People don’t read online; they scan. And to be effective — whenever possible — e-mail messages should contain all the most pertinent and important data in the first paragraph. Most of us have a short attention span when reading from a computer screen and if we think we know where the message is going, it’s easy to save time and move onto the next message without having read the nugget of information buried in the last paragraph.

Fix it: Keep your message concise. Use only a few paragraphs and a few sentences per paragraph. People skim their e-mail so a long missive is wasted. If you find yourself writing an overly long message, pick up the phone or call a meeting.

4. Reply to all.

If you’ve ever received a mass e-mail, you’re aware of how an informational correspondence can evolve into an irritating inbox monster. According to the Richmond study, 75 percent of respondents said they have co-workers who regularly use the reply all function when they should be hitting the reply button. This forces everyone on the original e-mail list to open an e-mail that it doesn’t pertain to them. It’s even worse when more important information is accidentally sent to clients. The reply all button is a mouse that’s just waiting to become an elephant.

Fix it: Before starting a reply, think about whether it’s really necessary at all and consider who needs to read it — reasonably not everyone. So picking “reply” over “reply all” every time is a good solution. If your message winds up being relevant to more than one person, insert the other recipients carefully and ignore the temptations of reply all. This will cut down on overall e-mail volume and keep your e-mail reply reputation intact.

5. Sensitive or confidential information.

E-mail is not the best way to exchange delicate information. In fact, it’s one of the worst. If a hacker doesn’t get you, remember that your recipient and their company are free to do as they please with whatever you send them. Many companies have strict e-mail policies and usually keep all messages on their company server, even if they’re deleted from your machine. All of your messages can easily be traced back to your computer’s IP address. E-mails are legal court documents. So where e-mail privacy is concerned, assume there is none.

Fix it: Think of your e-mails as public legal documents. If there’s a private matter at stake, try calling your recipient instead or arranging a meeting. When e-mail must be used, don’t include financial info and use e-mail encryption software. Be professional without being confidential, and your words won’t come back to haunt you.

6. Forgetting to check for spelling and grammar.

In the early days of e-mail, someone created the notion that this form of communication did not have to be letter perfect. Wrong! It does! It is a representation of you. If you don’t check to be sure e-mail is correct, people will question the caliber of other work you do. Taking a moment to reread your message before you hit “Send” is an easy way to make a better impression.

Fix it: Use proper capitalization and punctuation, and always check your spelling. Remember that your spell-checker will catch misspelled words, but not misused ones. It cannot tell whether you meant to say “from” or “form,” “for” or “fro”, “its” or “it’s.”

7. Using one e-mail address for everything that you do.

Although you might think this is a good idea, this will make it harder for you in the long run. It’s a lot easier to have separate e-mails for business, personal, even shopping needs. If you only have a few minutes and need to take care of something regarding business, you don’t want to have to scan through a lot of personal e-mails trying to find the one that you’re looking for. By keeping it separate it just helps you stay more organized.

Fix it: It’s best to have up to three open e-mail accounts. That way, you can have one for your home e-mails, one for your office e-mails and an extra one for all the other things you do online. For example, always use your third account to sign up for newsletters, contests, etc. With more than one account, you are saving yourself in the long run.

8. E-mailing the wrong person.

Sending an e-mail into the wrong hands is a classic blunder. Even worse is if you’re writing about somebody and, since he’s on your mind, you accidentally select him as your recipient. If that’s the case, don’t expect any Christmas cards in the mail.

Also when using your e-mail program, pay attention to the dreaded auto-fill feature, which allows you to type in partial letters in the recipient field, which the computer then completes on its own. This increases the chances of e-mailing the wrong person and it’s a sign that maybe e-mail technology isn’t so friendly after all.

Fix it: Since the address field is above an e-mail message, our instinct is to type the recipient in first and then our message. This is troublesome, because we’re thinking about our message, not our recipient. Go the opposite route by writing your message first and then selecting the recipient. This will decrease the chance of error, as you will be totally focused on the address in question. Don’t forget to double-check — or even triple-check — the recipient before you click “send.”

9. Not checking e-mail accounts regularly.

With e-mail being such a prime communication choice these days, it’s an instant mess up if you don’t check it regularly. When you don’t check your e-mail, you’re probability for error rises; in your mad rush to download and read everything later, your risk of deleting important messages increases, as does the tendency to not give essential e-mails enough attention.

Fix it: When you are proficient at checking and responding to all e-mails in a timely fashion, don’t overdo the habit by letting e-mail control your working time. Just stay on top of who’s contacting you and what’s important.

10. Clicking “Send” too fast.

Messages that are sent too quickly are often accompanied by missing attachments — the ones you mentioned in your e-mail, but didn’t include. Business colleagues and clients will not enjoy dealing with you if they have to spend time replying to ask you for something you thought you sent in the first place. If you add it all up, the fastest e-mails can make for unflattering professional pictures.

Fix it: Spend more time writing your e-mails, but keep them brief with professional openings and closings. As for attachments, they can be included before you type your message. When you increase the time spent composing your e-mails, you will dramatically decrease your number of errors.

E-mail dangers can be avoided with common sense, proper time considerations and a careful choice of words. So, just keep the right tools at your disposal and hope that all of your e-mails shine with perfection.

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