10 Common Email Mistakes
Using Email Effectively
How many hours do you spend communicating by email every day? Most of us would answer, "Too many!"
According to a study by McKinsey® & Company, people spend 28 percent of their working week reading and replying to emails. However, despite the risk of becoming overloaded with messages, it remains one of the most powerful and efficient communication tools.
Using email is a quick and easy way to stay connected with your team members, customers and stakeholders, particularly those who are geographically dispersed. However, it can be very easy to send ineffective emails, create the wrong impression, or even damage your reputation with sloppy practices.
In this article, we'll look at 10 common mistakes that people make when they send emails, and explore what you can do to avoid these.
Mistake 1: Using the Wrong Tone
You might be tempted to send emails quickly when you're in a rush, without thinking carefully about your audience, what you're saying, or how your message might come across. So, it's important to consider who you're "talking" to and what action you want them to take, before you start writing.
For example, an email to a senior manager should be more formal than a quick update to a team member, and a message to a customer will likely be more enthusiastic and polite than an exchange with a close colleague.
Although your email's subject matter may be clear to you, its recipient might not share your knowledge or understanding. So, avoid using abbreviations, jargon or "text speak," and consider whether your message is appropriate before you hit the send button. Will your reader understand what you're saying? And is your information clearly structured and presented?
A good rule to follow is to address people in an email as you would in person. For example, making a quick request or providing instructions without a "hello" or "thank you" will likely come across as rude, regardless of how busy you are. So, make sure that all of your emails are courteous and respectful, and avoid typing in capitals, which implies anger or aggression.
Mistake 2: Hitting "Reply All"
How often have you been copied into an email exchange that's not relevant to you, and doesn't require you to take any action? Chances are, it happens regularly, and you know how frustrating it can be.
"Reply all" is a useful tool for keeping multiple team members in the loop, or for documenting group decisions, but many people use it without considering who should actually receive their email.
Receiving numerous irrelevant emails throughout the day can be distracting and time consuming; and becoming known as the person who always hits "reply all" can potentially damage your reputation, as it can appear thoughtless, rushed and unprofessional. It might also suggest that you're not confident making decisions without input from senior managers.
So, consider whether you should "reply all" or respond only to the email's sender. And, think about whether using "cc" (carbon copy) or "bcc" (blind carbon copy) to include selected team members is more appropriate.
Mistake 3: Writing Too Much
Brief and succinct emails that contain only the important details are much more effective than long or wordy ones.
If you're struggling to keep your message short, consider whether the subject matter is too complex. Would another way of communicating it be more effective? Would a face-to-face meeting or telephone call make it clearer? Should you put your information in a procedure document instead?
Mistake 4: Forgetting Something?
How many times have you sent an email without attaching the relevant document? Perhaps you included a link that didn't work? Or even attached the wrong file?
These mistakes can often be fixed quickly with a follow-up email, but this adds to the large volume of messages that people receive, and it can appear unprofessional or forgetful. Consider attaching files as soon as your start drafting your message, and always check all of your links carefully.
Attaching the wrong document can be much more serious, particularly if it's sensitive or restricted. Read our article on confidentiality in the workplace to identify what information is confidential in your organization, and to think about how to protect your data.
Mistake 5: Emailing the Wrong Person
Today, email providers increasingly use "auto-fill," predictive text and "threads" (or "conversation view"), which can all increase the risk of you sending your message to the wrong person.
This can be embarrassing, but it also means that your email might not reach its intended recipient unless someone flags up your mistake. More seriously, you risk distributing sensitive information to the wrong people, and damaging your organization's reputation. So, always pause to review your email before you send it.
When you reply to or forward an email within a thread, make sure that all the messages contained within it are appropriate for the recipient. Is there any sensitive information? Are there any personal comments or remarks?
Mistake 6: Being Too Emotional
One of the main benefits of email is that you don't need to respond immediately. It's particularly important to delay your response when you're stressed, angry or upset – if you send a message in the heat of the moment, you can't get it back (although some email clients do have a limited "undo" or "retrieve" option). These emails could damage your working relationships, or even be used as evidence against you.
So, avoid sending any messages when you feel this way. Wait until you've calmed down and can think clearly and rationally.
See our article on managing your own emotions at work for more on staying in control of yourself in difficult situations.
Mistake 7: Not Using "Delay Send"
It can be satisfying to send an email as soon as you finish writing it, so that it's "off your desk." However, many email clients now provide a "delay" or "scheduled send" function, which can be particularly useful.
For example, imagine that you're catching up on your emails late at night or during the weekend. What sort of impression will this give clients and stakeholders? How will they view your time management? Will team members feel that they should take action out of working hours?
Alternatively, imagine that you're working on a project, and you want to provide your team members with information at a specific point. Scheduling an email to arrive at a certain time is a good way to do this, and it can help you manage your time and organize your workload.
Mistake 8: Using Vague Subject Lines
As we've said, email is most effective when your message is concise and to the point (but not abrupt). So, it's important to start with a clear subject line, so that people know what to expect when they open it.
What is your email about? Is there an important deadline date? Do you want people to take action before a certain time? Is it urgent or non-urgent? Tailor your subject line accordingly, so your recipient can give the email the right level of priority and attention.
Mistake 9: Not Reviewing
Proofing your emails is one of the most important things you can do. It only takes a few minutes, and it helps you to pick up poor grammar, spelling mistakes and punctuation errors, which look unprofessional and sloppy. Our article on Writing Skills has more on how to check your work for mistakes.
It's also important to ensure that you properly read and understand emails that are sent to you, including all messages in threads or conversations. Here, someone may have already dealt with your question or concern, and raising it again will likely result in duplication, frustration and confusion.
Finally, don't add the recipient to your email until the last moment. This ensures that you can't accidentally send your message before you've finished writing it, have added your attachment, checked the email, and spotted any errors.
Mistake 10: Sending Unnecessary Emails
Because email is so quick and convenient, it can easily become your default communication method with your team. However, it's important to remember that email is also impersonal, and you risk losing touch with people if you rely on it too much. It's certainly not a substitute for face-to-face or even phone communication.
Email can be a quick, efficient and effective way of communicating if it's used properly. However, think carefully about how you use it, and how reliant you are upon it.
Reviewing an email before you send it can help ensure that its tone, meaning and length are appropriate, that your spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct, and that you've selected the right recipient and attachment.
Avoid sending emails when you feel stressed or angry, consider the impact on people if you do it out of office hours or at the weekend, and think carefully about whether you should use "reply all."
Focus on being concise and to the point, though not abrupt, and make your requests clear.
Apply This to Your Life
- Get into the habit of reviewing and re-reading your emails before you send them – you may be surprised by what you pick up.
- Think carefully about how you use "reply all," cc and bcc.
- Take time to consider whether you are spending too much time communicating by email. Do you rely on it too much when managing your team?