If you were delivering a speech, would you knowingly choose the wrong title, bury your point, be rude, use too many words, and otherwise get yourself in trouble with colleagues and bosses? Not if you care about your career. Yet many professionals do these things routinely when they write emails, sabotaging the very purpose of some of their most important communications. Here are seven of the most destructive email mistakes, as well as quick fixes that will help you avoid them.
1. Your Subject Line Has Nothing to Do With Your Point
Few things are more misleading than a new thought living under an old subject line. How is your breakthrough marketing-to-millennials idea going to get noticed when it lives under a subject line like “Re: Re: Re: Tuesday”?
The Fix: Don’t be afraid to change a thread’s subject line if it has become obsolete or you’re taking it in a brand new direction unless that subject line is connected to a very active thread. With each email, audit your subject line to make sure it truly and clearly express your point, like “New Idea to Engage Millennials.” Who wouldn’t open that email?
2. You Don’t Know Your Point
In my new book, “Get to the Point!” I discuss the value of knowing your point, sharpening it, and conveying it effectively. This applies as much to emails as it does to presentations. Why send a pointless email that wastes both your and your recipient’s time? You may even be unaware you’re not making a point, confusing it with a theme or topic. A quick test: Can you express your point aloud in one sentence? If not, then you’re likely sending a barrage of words, placing the burden of discovering its value entirely on your reader.
The Fix: Take what you think is your point and add the words: “I believe…” to the front of it. If it’s not grammatically correct, you probably don’t have a real point. Once your point passes that test, write it (with or without the “I believe”) somewhere within the first three sentences, and try to close with another way of saying it. Consider yourself a bicycle messenger and your point as your package. If you deliver it, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. That’s all that matters, so make your point as strong and as clear as you can.
3. You Skipped the Salutation
In both original emails and replies, people often skip the “Hi, Fred…” But consider the value that friendly gesture has in all other interpersonal experiences, from personal conversations to personal letters. It creates an instant connection that makes the recipient immediately feel comfortable and welcomed, even if only subconsciously. Forgoing it robs you of that opportunity to make a human connection right off the bat.
The Fix: Always start with a quick salutation. If your recipient is not an individual, consider “Hi Team” or “Hi Everyone.” It’s the human thing to do.
4. Your Thanks Are Hollow
The value of “Thanks” alone is overrated. How quickly do you delete – and dismiss – the classic one-word “Thanks!” reply? Very quickly, because It only says, “You did something, and I saw it… maybe.” That barely counts as credit and certainly not as praise because it says nothing thoughtful or evaluative. For the comment to have true meaning and impact, it needs to explicitly include WHY what they did was valuable: “Thanks! Your contribution was important because...”
The Fix: Always include the “why” when you show appreciation and give credit, and include details – the more, the better. Taking the time to be explicit in your emails of appreciation improves your recipient’s morale and demonstrates your commitment to the team.
5. You Created a Word Avalanche
You’ve heard that “less is more,” but also realize “more is less.” More words distract from and dilute your specific point, so you should always use as few words as possible. This way, they assist in the delivery of your point, not bury it. Too many emails contain huge blocks of words, again placing the burden on the reader to find the sharp needle of value in a haystack of text.
The Fixes: 1. Cut all but the most necessary words, especially uselessly broad adjectives like “very good” and “great.” 2. Break paragraphs frequently, with no more than 2-3 sentences in each. Treat each paragraph like a tiny chapter change, kick-starting the reader’s attention. 3. Use bullets when you have groups of three ideas or more. This will spotlight those ideas and cut even more unnecessary words.
6. You Didn’t Check for Spelling and Grammar
Even though you graduated from school many moons ago, spelling still counts. Spelling, grammar, and accuracy mistakes can be huge distractions for a reader, and even injure your credibility – whether or not your job requires writing skills.
The Fix: Always use the spell-check. For an even better review, read the email aloud. That practice alone will illuminate errors every time you do it. Remember: The time you invest revising your email now can make a huge difference in its impact later.
7. You Didn’t Follow up That Slam with Suggestion
A wise former boss of mine instituted a rule for staff meetings: No criticisms without suggestions for correction. That rule made an enormous difference in both the morale and productivity of our meetings. The same is true for email. No one likes a hit-and-run naysayer, and the most easily-received points are constructive, not destructive.
The Fix: The next time you send an email to criticize an idea, include suggestions for improving it. You may not only fix the problem and save the day, but also demonstrate critical ownership and leadership qualities.
A version of this article was originally published in Fast Company
Joel Schwartzberg is the Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications for a national nonprofit organization, a frequent public speaker, a public speaking trainer, and the author of the just-released “Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Ideas and Make Your Words Matter”