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Weapons of Mass (Mis)Communication

Posted by | February 26, 2015 | Advice, Career

Via LinkedIn : Why we need to think before we hit “send.”

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then email is a business communication homing missile. But sometimes, an email missile is launched when the sender should have used old-fashioned face-to-face diplomacy, with disastrous results. I was reminded of that fact when I became embroiled in one of those epic “reply all” email nightmares we have all experienced at some point in our lives. The subject in this case was emotional: a fundamental disagreement about the future direction of an organization. As the mass emails proliferated and consumed my inbox, they became tiny little word missiles whose targets and messages were increasingly unclear.

A few of us on the “reply all” chain attempted to defuse the escalating tension by responding to clearly upset individuals privately. One “well-meaning” recipient of these overtures decided, “in the interests of transparency,” to forward the obviously private communications on to the entire group without first requesting permission from their senders. Ouch.

Needless to say, the situation was not resolved. In the aftermath, I am reflecting on a few best practices I emphasize when I teach business communications.

Email Is Transactional

As with any communication, audience and purpose should always drive the choice of both medium and message. In the case of email, content should be brief and limited to transactional information whenever possible (There are some exceptions, like email newsletters that can be read at the receiver’s leisure).

I have to confess that I can’t even read long emails, because they remind me of my ex-husband’s hate-filled missives. After our divorce, I would have to read through several paragraphs that detailed my numerous faults as a person and a mother before I could get to the information I needed: “Soccer Game at 6:30.” (Aside: he’s much better at transactional emails now, and so am I).

Email Is Permanent

The speed with which we can send an email gives us a false sense that the content is ephemeral. But in fact, email is forever. With every work email I send, I take a moment to imagine how I would feel if I were testifying about its contents in a court of law. I want my emails to reflect my professionalism. Punctuation, grammar, and spelling all matter. So does the message. Is it clear? Is it concise? Is it complete? A quick proof read is always time well spent.

Also, remember that any email you send can be forwarded to anyone without your knowledge. Are you comfortable with the content of your email becoming public? If not, don’t send it. Pick up the phone instead.

Email Has Its Own Etiquette

Here are a few of my rules:

“Reply All” is annoying, period. I wish someone would do a study on the lost productivity caused by this single feature alone. Just don’t use it. Reach out to the sender individually if you have questions or concerns.
Don’t forward emails without getting permission. It’s a safe assumption that when you receive an email, it’s intended for you, not for other people who are not copied on the email. That’s why so many people have those confidentiality notices below their signatures.
Blind copying (bcc) should be used for one reason only: to protect the privacy of a list of recipients when you are sending a mass email. I hate it when I receive an email that is shorter than the “To” line, with its 900 suddenly public email addresses. Note: the bcc feature should not be used to throw coworkers under the bus. If you do use it that way, remember: karma is watching.
As a best practice, I try to include as much information as possible in the email’s subject line; e.g., “Commencement Planning Meeting Thursday 2:00 p.m.” And for important messages, I take advantage of features like “Read receipts” that let me know when a receiver has opened my message.
When I first moved to Idaho, I used to get really annoyed when people didn’t respond to my emails within 30 minutes. Now I’ve learned to chill out. If you can’t respond to emails, just set your “out of office” assistant. People will understand.
Email Is Not the Way to Have a Hard Conversation

Just like you wouldn’t break up with someone by email (please tell me you wouldn’t!!!), you shouldn’t fire someone by email either. The tough conversations have to happen face-to-face. This is what my distributed organization learned the hard way. There are a variety of tools like Go To Meeting, Google hangouts, and Skype, to facilitate real-time conversation in a scattered world. It’s too hard to read things like tone and intent in emails, and it’s too easy to take things the wrong way. Once trust is shattered, it can be very difficult to restore.

What’s your favorite email tip? And how do you make sure your mass emails are weapons of mass communication instead of miscommunication?

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