Write your way to success
We vividly remember a respected marketing guru telling us: “I can’t see the point of email, it will never catch on.” Predicting the future was obviously not his strong point. In the decades since that conversation, email – and more recently, social media –has changed the way we communicate. The ability to communicate well has become vital to career success.
So here are five tips for success from our battle-hardened corporate veterans.
Edit: Obvious maybe. But we see it ignored every day. In emails and blogs we tend to write fast and very informally. But there’s big downside to this. We tend not to edit what we write. Bigg misteak. When an email matters (and most business emails do), don’t trust your spelling. Spelling and grammar mistakes irritate your readers and reduce your credibility. Always run a spell check before you hit the send button. You will be amazed how many carless mistakes you find, beleive me . . .
Edit again: This time not for spelling and grammar but for tone and meaning. Make sure nothing can be read in a way you didn’t intend. Even someone as publicity sensitive as Prince Charles has been caught out like this. When some of his staff complained to a labour tribunal that they had no opportunity or training for promotion, Charles wrote an exasperated letter to the tribunal complaining that people felt that opportunity was theirs by right, not by ability.
When the press got hold of it, Charles was pilloried for elitism and being out of touch with an egalitarian modern world. The fact that he was not being elitist is not the point. If he had edited for meaning and tone he would have seen that his meaning could easily be misconstrued and he would not have got into trouble in the first place.
Never send an email in anger. If there’s one tip you take away from this article, make it this one.
So you are angry: by all means write the email, vent your wrath, get it out of your system. But save it as a draft. Always sleep on it. The next morning we guarantee you this: you will be eternally grateful you didn’t send it. We have never slept on an angry memo and not deleted the email completely the next day or radically rewritten it.
Our favourite anecdote on the subject comes from Neil James’ excellent book ‘Writing at Work’. James, who is the Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation, tells the story of a marquee supplier in New Zealand that found itself the subject of worldwide attention when a blunt email to a customer went into mass circulation.
When a couple decided not to use the company’s service for their wedding, they sent a polite email explaining why. The company’s office manager lost control of her tone:
Thanks for your reply. Your wedding sounded cheap, nasty and tacky anyway, so we only ever considered you time wasters.
Our marquees are for upper class clients which unfortunately you are not. Why don’t you stay within your class level and buy something from payless plastics instead?
According to James, the couple forwarded the email to some of their friends, and within hours it had circulated throughout the corporate world, eventually reaching tens of thousands of people in Australia and New Zealand and attracting extensive news coverage.
Obviously the company suffered damage to its reputation. And, not surprisingly, the office manager lost her job.
Email is not like conversation where things are said in the heat of the moment and quickly forgotten. Your angry email will live on and can be read and reread days or months later when all is cool and calm. Wait. Delay allows everyone’s emotions (above all, yours) to calm down.
Beware of humour: This is an easy way to be horribly misunderstood. So you have to play it safe: avoid humour to anyone but close friends. Even if the recipient knows it’s a joke it may be forwarded to someone who doesn’t.
Always write for the record: Finally, we have all read horror stories of people and corporations being crucified for emails that were never meant for public consumption.
If it’s online it’s on record. Remember: always write as though the world is looking over your shoulder, because it is.