BIZTIPS - September 24, 2006

Biz Tips: Business E-Mails Require Special Care
Sunday,Sept. 24, 2006
By Art Hill

There are lots of scary things in today's world, but our business e-mail shouldn't be one of them. How many times have our fingers paused over the "Enter" key as we tried to imagine what the reader would think of our message? Worse, how many times have we had that awful sinking feeling AFTER we pressed the "Enter" key that we wrote something certain to have a negative impact?

While it may not offer much consolation, we're not alone. Hundreds of employees of Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack) opened their e-mail a few weeks ago and learned that they had been laid off. That has to be the ultimate confrontation avoidance strategy - Dear Employee: you're fired. Of course that's not exactly what it said, but the e-mail earned the company a scathing story in the Wall Street Journal. I wonder if the sender's finger paused before they pressed the "Enter" key.

In the early days of business e-mail it was considered OK to write the way you talked - informally, sometimes without much structure, and many times without much thought. But that has changed. Now e-mail has become a sophisticated communication and marketing tool. According to another recent Wall Street Journal article, researchers are using eye-movement tracking software to determine which words get read and which don't. Small business readers, for example, respond to messages about 'service' or 'solutions.' Ironically, the word 'free' doesn't get much attention. E-mail readers tend to click on graphic icons more than plain address links to go to internet sites with related information.

Of course, this raises the bar for our humble, every-day business e-mail. Now our reader is subconsciously comparing it to the one they just received from a marketing professional. Our grammar, spelling, word order, and the effectiveness of the overall message gives the reader insights into our thought process. Time for a brush-up in composition or effective writing? Not a bad idea.

In fact, you can start by imitating (or shamelessly copying) the e-mail style of a colleague who writes effectively. It is probably brief, focused on one key point, and organized for more detail if needed. It doesn't ramble on, but it avoids the 'drive-by shooting' style so clipped it appears arrogant. Remember that you don't have to cover every possibility in one e-mail. If someone has questions, they can reply and you can answer them as they come in. On the other extreme, don't rely on an endless series of short e-mails to convey your whole message. Readers can lose track of key issues after two or three replies, then you have to repeat. Not good.

E-mail has become one of the most powerful communication tools in today's business environment. Like a fine sports car, it can be handled skillfully or it can kill you. Give it some attention and develop your skills. You'll earn the respect of your colleagues and customers instead of a pounding in the Wall Street Journal.

Content © 2006 East Oregonian