As we move into the holiday season, thank the person who tells you that you have spinach in your teeth before taking the family picture. That person is a real friend. The truth is, we all could use that friend to show us how we can improve our business writing skills.
You have probably sent thousands of emails without hearing a word about your writing style. That silence doesn’t mean you’ve brushed away all of the spinach from your teeth — or emails.
In fact you could be making the mistakes listed below which diminish your credibility and waste your time without you realizing it.
For instance, think of the number of needless conference calls that you have led despite having given the same information in an email? How many meetings have swallowed hours of time rehashing topics that were already summarized in an email?
Keep this list on a note near your computer and refer to it before sending your next email:
Mistake #1 – Too Long
Emails that cause the reader to keep scrolling while viewing unstructured, stream of consciousness thoughts come across as unimportant, patronizing, or careless.
Solution #1 – Set a Budget of 300 Words
Sticking to this 300-word limit causes you to state your purpose clearly while eliminating needless words. Budgets help people to make more informed decisions to manage their money effectively or to lose weight. Apply this same concept to select your words and provide your readers with a reasonable amount of information.
Mistake #2 – Too Vague
People decide at iPod speed which emails to read, file, or delete. iPod speed means you look or listen to the first few seconds of a song, presentation, or email and choose either to keep it or move to the next one.
Solution #2 – Write Preview-Pane Emails
Write a relevant subject line with a meaningful first sentence. Assume that your reader is viewing your email on a phone or in a preview pane. As a result the subject line must be short and appealing. As the topic changes, you will need to edit the subject line and first sentence to keep them current so they will stand out in a crowded inbox.
Mistake #3 – Too Self-Centered
Readers want to see ideas and solutions that relate to them, not musings from the writer. When an email contains a lot of “I did this” or “I think that” the reader becomes bored and moves to something else because the text is writer-focused.
Solution #3 – Emphasize You = The Reader’s Favorite Subject
Count the number of times you wrote I versus you. If you have a greater number ofI sentences, change them to you sentences. For instance, the following sentence is writer focused: “I will send you the report tomorrow.” Compare that one to this reader-focused sentence: “You will receive the report tomorrow.”
Mistake #4 – Too Boring
A huge block of text in an email gives most readers the same painfully bored feeling that Ben Stein gave to students in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Solution #4 – Include Balance and Bullets
Write short paragraphs of 2-3 sentences along with a few longer ones to provide a balanced, visually appealing look to your text. In addition, vary your sentence length to break up a potentially Stein-like monotone sound for your thoughts. Finally, list important ideas as bullet points with impactful headings.
Mistake #5 – Too Passive
Readers view the passive voice with the same disdain as someone who gives a limp-fish handshake. The immediate reaction is Ewwwww!
Solution #5 – Use Active Voice Over Passive Voice
The subject receives the action of the verb instead of doing the action in passive-voice sentences. For instance, in this passive sentence the pizza receives the action: “The pizza was eaten by the man.” (7 words)
The active-voice version of this sentence is: “The man ate the pizza.” (5 words) Notice how the active voice communicates the main point quicker, clearer, and more succinctly than the passive voice.
Mistake #6 – Too Heavy
Some writers use emails as a tool to cover themselves by including every spreadsheet, PPT, word doc or link known to man. All of this activity can create confusion for the reader and a feeling of BBD — Buried By Data.
Solution #6 – Create Subway-Friendly Visuals
If you’ve never taken the subway to work, picture someone standing up and being jostled around on a fast-moving train. Usually subway riders hang onto a pole with one hand and thumb through their emails on their phones with their free hand.
Whether readers are sitting at their desks or riding on a train, they want to see only the need-to-know visuals, not the nice-to-know ones. Sending the Library of Congress as attachments and links serves the needs of the writer, not the reader.
Enjoy the holidays and let me know how these strategies are working for you.