Most people have mixed feelings about email. On one hand, it allows us to instantly communicate with people around the world without pigeons or morse code. It’s also the most ubiquitous form of business communication and a ritual part of our daily lives—for better or worse.
The fact that email is a text-based form of communication is both its biggest asset and its greatest downfall. Unlike talking to real-life human beings, email is literally and figuratively a blank slate. It relays our words but not necessarily our tone of voice or the nonverbal cues we typically rely on to communicate intent. This makes it exceptionally efficient, but also leaves a minefield of potential miscommunications.
In business, most emails are a form of negotiation. We ask someone to read our message and respond in a certain way or take a certain action within a given time frame. To help you become a more effective text communicator, we’ve outlined six tips for avoiding miscommunication and boosting your influence over email.
1. Know the Best Ways to Use Email
When it comes to negotiation, in-person or vocal communication should always be your primary goal. That said, email can be used to support and amplify verbal communication efforts by:
- Summarizing conversations and noting confirmations
We just had a conversation. These are the things we talked about.
Out of those things, I’d like to follow up on these two points on X date.
- Obtaining confirmation
Am I incorrect in assuming that we’ve agreed to X?
2. Do You See What They See?
Before you click “reply,” take a moment to think about your soon-to-be email recipient. What’s happened to them in the last week? What factors might be affecting their mood? Is it impossible for them to mad about something else while they read your email? If you’ve talked before, you probably have an idea of their preferred communication style and a rough sense of their daily life. Use this knowledge to inform your communication strategy and add some personal relevance to your email. If you don’t have a history to draw from, use what limited information you have to conduct an accusation audit for the would-be recipient of your unsolicited email, then be preemptive with empathy in your opening line.
3. Keep It Short
Think of email as playing a virtual game of chess. Would you lay out your next seven moves for your opponent in your first turn? When you don’t have a live audience to answer or interject, it’s easy to get carried away and forget about the natural back-and-forth communication required to build influence and earn buy-in. To keep your cadence and expectations reasonable, limit yourself to two questions per email. Before you write a novel in a miniscule font, consider how many people you know who like to read long emails and opt for a phone call or an in-person chat instead.
4. Consider Timing
Every form of communication comes with its own invisible clock. Waiting a couple hours or days to respond to a message is reasonable in the world of email, less so for texting, and catastrophic for in-person conversations. These unspoken rules are helpful to keep in mind for a couple of reasons.
First, remember that you don’t have to respond to an email immediately. If you receive an emotionally-laden message, resist the urge to type out your gut reaction. Instead, come back to it when your negotiation skills aren’t being overridden by emotion.
Second, remember that these social expectations are not guarantees—each person has their own timing expectations and set of priorities. To make sure you and your counterpart remain loyal to the same timeline (and interpret words like “urgent” and “delayed” in the same way), include a calibrated or “no” oriented questions in your email that address how and when you can expect to connect again. What’s the best time to follow up? Is Friday too late? Is the end of the month after your deadline? By asking no-oriented and calibrated questions, you’ll foster buy-in and increase the chances that they’ll follow through on their word.
5. Plug In as Many I’m Sorrys and I’m Afraids as Possible
This little-known trade secret will help ensure that your emails aren’t read in a hostile or aggressive tone. Write out what you’d like to communicate in your email, then go back and add an “I’m sorry” and “I’m afraid” wherever it fits. “I’m afraid if this doesn’t get solved, it could lead to another issue” and “I’m sorry to drop this on you this week” sounds a whole lot better than, “If this doesn’t get solved, it could lead to another issue” and “This requires your attention this week.”
6. Don’t Underestimate Subject Lines and Sign-Offs
Most people see subject lines and sign-offs as a perfunctory part of sending an email, rather than a vital piece of their communication. Think about a subject line as your first impression and first chance to win your counterpart’s attention. When people open their inbox, they scan subject lines and mentally prioritize their emails before opening the messages. If you’re using email as a mechanism to spark a quick decision or ignite a conversation after a period of silence, no-oriented questions make effective subject lines because they warrant a response to set the record straight. Have you given up on [insert topic]? Have we missed our opportunity? Is it too late to [insert topic]? Your message has just gained the highest priority rating.
On the flip side, subject lines can be a helpful way to organize and archive conversations—like naming a folder which will house a library of interactions. If you’re using email as a kind of documented list, then consider a subject line that will help you and your team easily identify that specific “folder” from within your ever-growing file cabinet.
If subject lines are first impressions, sign-offs are your last opportunity to communicate tone and intent. Take the sentence, “I don’t understand why this hasn’t been done already.” Now read it in an aggressive tone, a curious tone, and a confused tone, and you’ll see why so many well-intended emails have derailed agreements. Sign-offs are your last opportunity to make sure that your recipient reads your email in your intended voice. Instead of using a standard sign-off, label how you’d like to be perceived. Simply signing an email with “humbly” or “with all sincerity” may help drive home your intention and earn you the benefit of the doubt.