Top Email ‘Sins’ and How to Avoid Them

How to Write and Format Emails People Want to Read

 One type of business communication most of us do regularly, if not daily, is write emails. But it never fails to amaze me how often we commit ’email sins’.

I was reminded of this recently when reading an article in the ‘Listener’ by Joanne Black about a series of emails she received after a very simple transaction at a Gap store. She was endlessly asked for feedback, and when she tried to unsubscribe continued to be harassed by email.

I’m sure we’ve all been through this, or similar. We provide an email address because we’re asked and nothing is achieved without complying. Then we’re bombarded with emails as a result.

In a very few cases, this is a good thing. We want to receive the information.

Mostly, our goodwill is stretched to the limit by a seemingly endless stream of badly written, poorly designed and boring messages that make us want to tear our hair out.

Here are some of the worst email sins:

📍Daily communications from someone or a company I’ve long since lost interest in or can’t remember why I signed up in the first place.

📍Emails that are entirely promotional – they focus on what the company has to offer – not on what problem I have, which they could fix (and how).

📍Badly laid out emails where there are huge amounts of white space so it takes centuries of scrolling to get through it. (Hint: I don’t, I give up and consign it to my Awful Emails folder.)

📍Non-personalised emails that start ‘Dear customer’ or worse, ‘Dear valued customer’ – I’m so valued that they can’t even write my name.

📍Emails that don’t fit into my preview pane so I can’t see an entire line of text. (Hint: few people open their emails by double-clicking on them to open. We almost always read them in the preview pane and if we can’t see them, we won’t read them.)

📍Un-proofed messages full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. You may not think it matters but it does! Especially if you want your email to be taken seriously and acted on.

This article is my attempt to help make the email world a better place by dealing with the main issues I see and offering suggestions on how best to fix them.

Behind the scenes – From, Return Address

Few people take notice of what their emails look like to the recipient. They don’t check that the basics are in place.

For instance, is there a return email address someone can respond to that will be seen by a human?

How many times have you wanted to contact a company, looked up their emails to you and found the reply address is something like ‘messaging-service@post.xero.com’ which is of no earthly use.

Companies with return addresses that start with ‘no-reply@…’ are just as annoying. How is someone supposed to respond to this message?

Have you looked to see how the ‘From’ part of your email reads? If not, you may be doing yourself a major disservice! It is the first or second thing that an email recipient will read and if it is unclear, it may not be read.

People are very wary of spam these days and rightly so. Make sure they know your email is from a trusted source.

Email Sign-offs

How do you sign off email messages?

I remember the first time I received an email signed off ‘Cheers’ I was hugely offended. The only thing that saved it was that it came from my boss at the time, whom I liked enormously, so I figured perhaps I needed to get with the programme.

I use it sometimes still, but I find that my sign-offs change on a reasonably regular basis.

It’s hard to go wrong with ‘Kind regards’, ‘Best Regards’ or ‘Regards’ but it’s a bit formal for my tastes. I routinely shorten it to ‘Best’.

If I’m emailing someone I know quite well and who I’m fond of I’ll write ‘Warmly’ but it’s a bit too friendly for most situations.

‘Yours sincerely’ went out with the dinosaurs so it is best to find something you feel comfortable with that reflects your personality.

Your relationship with the recipient also has a bearing on the sign-off. If it’s a formal, business email and the recipient is a customer, supplier or the like, the sign-off should reflect that. If the recipient is a friend, a business colleague or similar, then by all means be more informal.

How Emails Display

I can’t count the number of times I’ve received an email that displays very badly. So badly that I am not inclined to read it, may delete it unread or consign it to my ‘awful emails’ folder.

Earlier in email’s career, the only way to ensure a message displayed properly was to construct it in a text format, and many people chose to use the old typewriter font, courier. Some still do but it’s more common for emails now to include graphics, logos, pictures and all manner of design elements.

Sometimes this really mucks up how the message displays on the recipient’s screen and the aforementioned deletion or non-reading occurs.

For most of us the problem is that the email displays fine in whatever software we might be using – Outlook, MailChimp etc – so we might never know that it doesn’t arrive like that at the other end. More confusingly still, these display issues might not be common across all mail software. So, a Gmail recipient might have no trouble but an Outlook recipient will.

When sending an important message to multiple recipients, test it first on different software. This provides an opportunity to check how it displays before sending it to multiple recipients and finding out too late that it looks a mess at the other end.

Brevity – when a phone call is better than an email

Despite emails having been in common business use for well over two decades, there seems still to be confusion over when an email is appropriate and when another form of communication might be better.

One way to decide is to think about the complexity of your message. If it needs to cover multiple points, each of which has multiple points, an email might not be the best way to communicate this information (unless it’s to a big group).

Another way to consider this is on the basis of the message content. If it is important that the recipient not misunderstand or misconstrue the message, and words alone may not be the best way to communicate the intent, make a call instead. That way, the person can hear your voice and you can be more expressive.

It is very hard to always be understood by all recipients. In modern workplaces staff often have different levels of understanding of English because, it might be their second language, or they might not have had a full education, or they might be dyslexic. For these people, a simple email can be a minefield. And it might not be immediately apparent – or ever become obvious – that the message has been misunderstood.

Millennials are one group that seem to prefer emails over talking on the phone. It’s a common complaint of sales managers – that their teams will email or text instead of picking up the phone and making a call.

When Communication Becomes Harassment

I am regularly asked, ‘How often is it appropriate to send sales and marketing emails?’

The best answer to this I have ever heard is – ‘When you have something of value to say.’

This is true of any communication, of course, but never more so than when attempting to persuade a potential customer to spend money.

I find daily emails from even my most interesting correspondents are too much and the majority languish in my ‘Read Later’ folder until I eventually decide on a mass delete.

Daily emails are particularly irritating when they arrive as a result of signing up to receive one particular piece of information.

Even weekly emails can be too often in many cases. Monthly is generally about right, but it depends on the circumstances.

A good question to ask when considering frequency is how often you would want to receive emails. Use that as a guide.

Whatever frequency you decide on, don’t harass your audience with promotional material. Email them when there is something of value to tell them – true value, not offers masquerading as information.

Most of us are wary of giving away our email address but sometimes it is unavoidable. A work-around is to have a Gmail account specifically for this purpose. Emails can be checked when you feel like it (although this often turns out to be never) and they don’t clutter up your main inbox.

Invoice emails – default or personal?

A massive email opportunity that most people  miss is the invoice email. Invoices are one email that have to be opened no matter what, so take it as an opportunity.

The default emails sent by most companies are impersonal, formal and downright boring. Sometimes I’m inclined to think they’re offensive, but I suspect that’s a matter of perspective.

Erring on the side of friendliness is no bad thing, especially if you are in a service-based business where relationships are important.

I use the invoice email as an opportunity to cement my relationship with my client because I am aware they always have other choices. I want them to know that I value their business. Often I like them as people, too, so a formal, impersonal email doesn’t fit with how I communicate with them in other circumstances. And I’m a strong believer in consistency in writing so to have a discordant message, especially around money, doesn’t sit right with me.

It’s possible to take the invoice email one step further and use it to promote a new product or service, let people know about a change in the business, or some other important information. I wouldn’t recommend doing it with every invoice but I do think sending the same invoice month in, month out is just plain lazy.

Tone – how to make your emails authentic

I have a secret to share; it often takes me ages and many rewrites to send an email. Especially an important one.

Arguably, that’s because what I say and how I say it has a strong correlation with my line of work and I suspect people will judge my competency on the quality of my emails. Also, it’s because I understand how easy it is for messages written in haste to be misconstrued.

How often have you received an email from someone you quite like and get on well with that’s stopped you in your tracks because of its tone? Something they said jarred. Or didn’t sound right.

Most likely, no offense was meant. It was either dashed off between other tasks or wasn’t checked before it was sent.

The problem with not checking emails before hitting the ‘Send’ button is that mistakes get made, crucial words are left out, the intent could be misunderstood or any one of a hundred other problems.

For me, the only solution is to treat emails as carefully as any other writing I do. That way I can be sure there are no misunderstandings or discordance between the two.

Write business emails the same way you would speak to someone in person, using the same kind of tone. If you do that, it will be hard to go wrong.

Summary

When writing emails – especially important ones – don’t be tempted to treat them cavalierly. Take care that all the important elements are correct, the message doesn’t have mistakes, and that the intent is clear. If you do all of these, you have a much greater chance of your message being read and acted on.

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