Self-Assessment Quiz ─ TRUE or FALSE:

  1. An email is not an opportunity to make a first impression.
  2. How I sound in an email isn’t important; everyone knows what I mean.
  3. Punctuation and grammar are for formal letters, not email.

When it comes to communicating something important at work, I’m still a believer in picking up the phone or getting up and talking to somebody rather than emailing because I know email tone can get misconstrued really quickly behind a glowing screen. However, I know emails are totally unavoidable, especially since many people work virtually and in different locations and time zones. Given that, some of y’all have to stop with the madness of sending horrible emails that are completely tone deaf. THIS is totally avoidable.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Which email tone would you respond best to:

Version 1

Kathy where is your review of the meeting notes you said you would get them to me and you didn’t. I need them today before 6.

Version 2

hey kathy, what’s up w the feedback from the meeting. I totally need them ASAP!! because I’m gonna get screwed if u dont. LMK. – B

Version 3

Hello Kathy, have you had a chance to review the meeting notes I put together from last week’s staff meeting? It is fairly urgent I receive your feedback by end of day today, 6pm, because Sally leaves for the retreat tomorrow morning and she needs this information for her presentation. If you’re swamped and can’t get me feedback, please let me know and I’ll submit without, as I wanted to give you an opportunity to be included in the process. Thank you! Beth

If I received Email Version 1, (and I have) I’m going to blow a gasket and pretty much hate Beth from now until eternity. Version 2 is full of mistakes, is way too formal and will not make me take Beth seriously. Version 3 gives me all the info I need for why this is urgent and reminds me of what the heck she’s even talking about because I’m so busy, I probably forgot. It gives me an out and gives both of us the opportunity to move on with our busy lives. It is even-toned and action oriented.

Here are 4 ways to avoid being tone deaf in your emails:

  1. Use punctuation and sentence case (ie, NOT ALL CAPS!). Punctuation actually serves a purpose beyond a grammar lesson, guys. A period means stop. A comma means take a breath. An exclamation point means excitement or emphasis. Those clues alone will help avoid miscommunication in an email or text.
  2. Read and re-read your message. This is called proofing. Proof your message. Yes, we all make mistakes (thank you, autocorrect), but as bad as a misspelling can be, it is worse to send out a message that sounds mean and snarky when it really wasn’t mean to be. Watch for when a sentence could be arranged into a question instead of a demand; how a “please” or “thank you” could help soften the tone OR if either of these could actually be condescending.
  3. Read your message aloud. This can help you catch how a phrase or use of words might be misinterpreted and make you sound unprofessionally ditzy or rude.
  4. Take a moment. If you have to send a particularly strong, reprimanding or even angry email, take a few moments to step away from the keyboard before pushing send. This “Wooo-sahh” break will give you time to breathe, gain clarity, and reframe your perspective and possibly ask a friend or colleague for advice and feedback on what you’re sending. With this time out, you may find your anger has subsided, for example. And, once you get back to the email, you can take steps 2 and 3 to make sure your email tone is in fact headed in the right direction you intended.

The lesson? Decorum, compassion and attention to detail in your professional emailing can go a long way. If you go back to what you learned when writing your term papers, or college entrance letters or heck, hopefully back to 7th grade, you’ll be in good shape. (That also means I hope you answered FALSE to the Self-Assessment questions above!)

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