Okay, is there anyone reading this who doesn’t know by now that typing email messages in all capital letters borders on criminal behavior? You do take the time to use the grammar and spell checker on your toolbar, don’t you? Emoticons and smiley faces are fine for family and friends, but you surely aren’t using them in business-related writing. Since you already know these things, let’s move on to some other more subtle considerations of sending emails at work.

There is no disputing the convenience and speed of emailing others for reasons both professional and personal, but just remember: family and friends will probably love you no matter how careless or stupid you appear in your electronic writing. Coworkers, bosses, and others you are contacting for business purposes will not be as understanding or forgiving. This is especially true of total strangers who receive your messages. All they will know about you (and the organization you work for) is what they see on their screens. First impressions count.

If you were asked to size up someone you were meeting for the first time, you might take note of such details as physical features, clothing, accessories, voice, personality—you know, the kind of stuff detectives ask if you remember after you’ve been mugged. The same sort of details stand out to readers who get an email from you, but they’ve never met you in person. The only “clues” they have about you are the bits of evidence you’ve left in writing.

Think about your own reactions to the emails you get each day. Some come as a pleasant surprise. Many make you laugh (and they’re supposed to). Others leave you bewildered. Then there are those that are so miserably written that you feel like contacting the cyber cops for crimes committed against your sensibilities. It’s these we need to focus on to figure out what makes them so heinous.

Let’s start with the physical appearance. “Well, Detective, there was nothing on the subject line, so I didn’t know what was about to hit me between the eyes.” Folks, the subject line is there for a reason. Use it. Don’t “blindside” your reader just because you’re short on time, especially if the news is unpleasant.

Next, consider the readability of what’s on the screen. Is the font and point size easy on the eyes or will the reader have to enlarge 500% to see what’s been written? Or is the type already so large that everyone in the office can read the message without budging from their desks? Sounds like a case of TWI (Typing While Impaired).

Is the message written in paragraphs that deal with a single subject each, or is there no line indentation anywhere in the text? At what point did the reader get sick, go blind, hit delete? A victim of visual assault!

At the end, did the writer offer a closing and name, or was this a case of “hit and run?” Even though the writer’s name appears at the start of an email, it’s a courtesy to end with some class. Writers need to identify themselves in both locations, especially if they use an alias that differs from the name at the beginning.

Tips for Success

Whether you have been a victim or a “perp,” here are some tips on keeping business emails legit:

  • Leave a clue. Include the subject on the subject line.
  • Counterfeits don’t count. It might be email, but make it look like a business letter.
  • Take no hostages. Keep your message brief, clear, and free of abbreviations and symbols where words are needed. Put your bottom line at the beginning so the reader doesn’t have to scroll through multiple screens to catch your drift.
  • Clear the scene. Proofread, edit, and revise as carefully as you would any other kind of business document. The “tools” for cleaning up the carnage are at your fingertips. Use them!
  • Freeze! Don’t hit “send” until you’ve corrected any mistakes and have made sure what you have written is what you really mean and want to say. You can’t “undo” what the reader receives.
  • No serial emailers. Before you “gang mail” everyone you know with the same message, make sure all you have included on your hit list need to read what you’re sending.

If you’re guilty of any of the above, you’ve been given your warning. Follow the rules.

Case dismissed!