Leadership

How to write a work email that doesn't make people hate you

NBC's Parks and Recreation
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NBC's Parks and Recreation

In business communication, there's supreme value in saying a lot in a small space. People are busy and need you to "get to the point."

Too often, though, the pursuit of brevity makes us come across as blunt or short — particularly in email conversations.

I believe the best communicators understand how to be brief and polite at the same time. The key is to be mindful of every word we type into our messages and think about how they're being perceived.

Here's an email example of someone who's brief but also blunt.

Hi everyone,

Still lots of work to do on Project Alpha.

Gina — you need to check our data again to make sure the numbers add up.

Steve — stop by my office on Tuesday when you can.

Marshall — are you ready with the analysis or do you need more time?

Thanks,

– Barry, Team Lead

Barry's email is short, no doubt. But his terseness leaves a lot of questions and gray areas. Let's break it down.

Still lots of work to do on Project Alpha.

Is Barry happy with the team's progress or not? We can't tell.

Gina — you need to check our data again to make sure the numbers add up.

Which numbers, in particular, should Gina check again?

Steve — stop by my office on Tuesday when you can.

Is Steve in trouble? Is this a friendly chat? Who knows!

Marshall — are you ready with the analysis or do you need more time?

Does Barry think Marshall is falling behind? Or not? Again, we aren't sure.

Here's a revised email so Barry is brief but also polite — and in doing so, he demonstrates leadership.

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your efforts so far on Project Alpha. We still have a lot of work to do before the project is completed.

Gina — can you please check our data again to make sure the numbers add up? In particular, make sure our efficiency stats are 100 percent correct.

Steve — stop by my office on Tuesday when you can. I finally have feedback from upstairs on your Project Beta proposal.

Marshall — are you ready with the analysis or do you need more time? If you need a couple more days, it's fine. Let me know.

Thanks, everyone.

– Barry, Team Lead

Doesn't email two seem like a different person than email one? The message is brief but there's a different, more optimistic tone. Plus, email two helps Barry appear as a supportive leader rather than a difficult manager.

Let's break it down line by line.

Thanks for your efforts so far on Project Alpha. We still have a lot of work to do before the project is completed.

Friendly and encouraging. A tone setter for the entire message.

Gina — can you please check our data again to make sure the numbers add up? In particular, make sure our efficiency stats are 100 percent correct.

Now, Barry is clear on what, exactly, he would like Gina to check on.

Steve — stop by my office on Tuesday when you can. I finally have feedback from upstairs on your Project Beta proposal.

This time, Steve know what Barry plans to discuss. Not as scary anymore!

Marshall — are you ready with the analysis or do you need more time? If you need a couple more days, it's fine. Let me know.

In email one, it felt as if Barry called out Marshall for not finished on time. Now, we know the situation isn't that serious.

As you compose your own business emails, remember:

  • A little small talk goes a long way.
  • Don't leave out key details or make people guess your intention.
  • Ask yourself, "Would I understand what I mean?" If the answer is "No," then add details to support your message.
  • If you're in a leadership role, remember your staff will scrutinize every word you use. Read every message thoroughly before it's sent so you command respect but also treat your team the right way.

Danny Rubin is the author of "Wait, How Do I Write This Email?" and "Wait, How Do I Promote My Business?" For more communication tips, follow him on Twitter at @DannyHRubin.

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