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“Don’t write something that you wouldn’t want your police chief, mother, priest or spouse reading,” says one expert on email.
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updated 7/26/2012 11:46:57 AM ET 2012-07-26T15:46:57

Our inboxes at work are flooded with poorly written, unprofessional, ineffective emails — and as much as we detest them, most of us are guilty of sending just as many flawed messages as we receive.

“This is a much larger problem in the business world than the average business leader may recognize, due to the hidden impact on productivity that each unnecessarily sent, confusingly written, poorly constructed, rambling, and improperly proofread email message adds to the collective workdays of all those victim recipients,” says Marsha Egan, a workplace and email productivity coach, CEO of InboxDetox.com and author of "Inbox Detox and the Habit of email Excellence" (Acanthus 2009).

Electronic communication is the primary method of communication in most workplaces. In fact, David Parnell, a legal recruiter, communication coach and author of "In-House: A Lawyer’s Guide to Getting a Corporate Legal Position," says that email surpassed telephone use as early as 2007. “With that, one’s ability to write effective and professional emails is now just as or more important as their verbal and non-verbal skills when it comes to communication.” And yet, we continue to see shoddy emails hamper our work and businesses.

How do poorly constructed emails hurt us?

For one, many emails containing important information are overlooked because of an extraneous subject line, an impersonal salutation, or dull, rambling paragraphs, among other things. When important emails are missed, miscommunication follows and business or productivity suffers.

“Careless, misleading, poorly-written or ineffective email messages can cause serious harm, confusion, unnecessary back-and-forth, loss of time and productivity, and frustration,” says Joyce K. Reynolds, an expert business coach.

Even if the recipient does read your substandard email and manages to grasp the important information without too much confusion or frustration, he or she may be left with a poor impression of you.

“The key is to consciously think about the impression one wants to make, and needs to make, on the individual to whom they are sending the email,” says Skip Weisman, a leadership and workplace communication expert. “Always look to put your best foot forward. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression and, in today’s high-tech world, those first impressions are happening faster than ever and are much harder to overcome, because people are moving on to the next thing.”

Egan concurs. She says it is extremely important that your email correspondence at work be both professional and effective, because “frankly if they are not, it could be a career limiting behavior.” Your clients, managers and co-workers “draw conclusions about your professionalism every time anything you do touches them, and email provides more touches in a day than telephone or in person discussions,” she adds. “To use poor grammar, to ramble, to misspell, et cetera, provides a written documentation of your less-than-professional way of communicating. A poorly worded or crafted email also may cause others to judge your leadership abilities.”

Reynolds agrees that how we communicate conveys who we are and determines how we are seen. “When properly employed, email can set us apart as professional, smart, competent and courteous,” she says. “Or, it can reveal us as rude, self-centered, unfocused, indecisive or unable to problem-solve. In every instance, carefully-written email can highlight the sender’s serious, intelligent and quality-oriented way of working.”

Occasionally even flawless, succinct and engaging emails with powerful subject lines, personalized salutations and perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation fail to yield a response or end up in the trash bin. Why? Maybe email wasn’t the most effective communication method for the matter you wanted to discuss. Maybe you copied multiple people on the email, which led the main recipient to believe it was spam. Maybe you annoyed the recipient by sending the same email repeatedly or inundating their inbox at 3 a.m. Needless to say, when constructing an email for work, you need to think about more than just the content and tone of the message.

Your audience is another thing to consider when sending an email. Etiquette standards and expectations vary depending on the industry or company you work for and the person with whom you’re corresponding, Weisman says. But as a general rule of thumb, you’ll always want to be as professional as possible.

“Remember that email messages are a permanent written record of your communication, and once the email is sent, you can no longer control who sees that message,” Egan says.”If the message is inappropriate or improper or just stupid, once it gets into the wrong hands there can be further complications. An accusatory or nasty email can be career limiting, once again due to the fact that it is a written record and can fly through cyberspace.”

So, what makes an email good or bad?

A good email is one that is effectively written, clear, concise, grammatically correct, and has no misspellings, Egan says. “I find it interesting to note that just about everyone I talk to believes that they craft their emails in this way, but the actual emails that are written many times do not follow these simple guidelines. An effectively written email gets results, without distracting the reader because of poor grammar, structure or spelling.”

Reynolds adds that a good email constitutes fast messaging. “It is informative, direct, clear, uncontroversial, and solution-oriented.” It is neutral in tone and clear on what is required in response.

Weisman says that a good email should get the response and the result you desire while presenting yourself in the best possible way, depending on context and audience, so the recipient develops a positive impression of you. The message should be “short and succinct, no more than two or three paragraphs, should have a specific purpose (it’s either giving information, requesting information or attempting to prompt further communication), and it should have enough detail to allow the person to respond effectively without asking for more information, yet it doesn’t provide too much unnecessary information.”

A bad email, on the other hand, is one that fails to accomplish any of the above.

The experts weighed in on what exactly you should and shouldn’t do, from subject line to signature. Here’s their advice:

Always write a powerful subject line that will get noticed.

Make sure it is related to the purpose or content of the email and that it isn’t misleading, Weisman says.

“The busy executive is looking for reason to delete, rather than read, emails,” Parnell says. “This leaves your subject line in a consequential position, its purpose being solely to grab attention and get the recipient to open the email, period. You are not selling them here, amusing them, befriending them or any other variation of socializing. You are just getting them to open the email.”

Always include a personalized salutation.

Get the person’s name — and address them by it. Make sure it’s spelled correctly!

Reynolds says to offer a courteous greeting or introduction, as well.

Always get right to the point.

Place your main point, request, or question in the very first sentence of your message, Egan says.

Always keep the message short and succinct.

“No one is reading through 12 paragraph emails,” Parnell says. “This, I’m sure, is what sparked the ‘five sentences’ rule. Though I disagree that any email can be done in five sentences, brevity is certainly a rule.”

Weisman suggests limiting your messages to two to three paragraphs. Keep them short and to the point. People are turned off by bulky, long-winded messages. Who has the time to read those?

Always make a note of any attachments in the email.

If you’ve attached important or relevant documents, mention them in the message. Those attachments can easily be overlooked by your recipient.

Always ensure that spelling and punctuation is accurate.

Use spell check, and double check yourself, because spell checkers rarely notice correctly spelled wrong words, Weisman says.

Always use a readable font.

Construct your message in a font size and color that is easy to read, Egan suggests.

Have a specific call to action with response time, if desired.

“Never leave open ended times like ‘please respond as soon as possible.’ That is way too vague and means nothing to the recipient. People are much more likely to comply if the deadline is specific,” Weisman says.

Always include a signature line.

Parnell suggests that you have a “full” and a “reply” signature. “Email trails can go on for days when you include a full signature with every reply.”

A full signature will have name, title, address, phone, fax, web, email and disclaimers. A reply signature should be much simpler, with just your name and contact information.

Always be conscious of your tone.

Email is one-dimensional, and tone in an email can be easily misconstrued, since there is no body language, Weisman says. When you think about your tone, consider your audience.

Always double check that you’re sending the email to your intended recipient(s).

There are many different consequences that can result from this type of error. Don’t be careless.

Always review the message before you send it.

Remember that once the message is out there, it may be made public, deliberately or accidentally, Reynolds says.

NEVER WRITE IN ALL CAPS.

The recipient may feel you’re shouting at him.

Never write something you wouldn’t want others to see.

“Don’t write something that you wouldn’t want your police chief, mother, priest or spouse reading,” Parnell says. “There are way too many stories floating around out there about email lips sinking ships.”

Emails are forever, Weisman adds. “They can always be retrieved by the IT department if necessary.”

Never be offensive.

“Don’t use profanity, ethnic barbs or sexist verbiage,” Egan says. “Never criticize the boss or the company by email.” That includes forwarding messages that are off-color, offensive, racist or obscene.

Never throw anyone under the bus by email. “That is, don’t put criticisms in writing,” she adds.

“Avoid saying anything in email that you would not want to see in print or heard spoken as a quote from you,” Reynolds concludes.

Avoid short-hand, texting language (abbreviations), emoticons and smiley faces.

Not everyone is familiar with them, and they’re too informal, Weisman says.

Never use the ‘high priority’ option unless it’s truly high priority.

Also, use the words “URGENT” and “IMPORTANT” sparingly, and only when they are true, Egan says.

Never send email messages when you are emotional.

Regardless of how you try to mask it, people will feel it, Egan says. You also might say something you regret.

Avoid using email to discuss issues among several people.

The threads become diffused, and the content is difficult to follow. Call a meeting instead, Egan says.

Never write multiple emails at one time.

Multiple windows open at any given time can, and do, become confused, and often enough messages are sent to unintended recipients, Parnell says.

Avoid using BCC to rat out your co-workers.

Blind copying turns you into the rat, Egan says.

Don’t resend the same email over and over again.

A follow-up is usually acceptable, but you don’t want to harass the recipient.

Don’t “reply all” unless everyone needs to get your response.

Copy or reply only to those who really have to receive the email, Egan says.

Avoid using email to provide “constructive criticism” or to discuss more serious matters.

“Never hide behind an email with something that should be said face-to-face, or at a minimum verbally over the phone,” Weisman says. “It’s cowardly and will only exacerbate whatever issue needs to be addressed.

Avoid sending an email message in the middle of the night.

You’ll be much better off saving it and reviewing it by the light of day before hitting the send button, Egan says.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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