Have you ever written an email that gets completely misinterpreted?
You’ve spent hours crafting the perfect message. You’ve taken pains to ensure that you have put your point across clearly and elegantly. You finish the email and start to move on to the next job on your to-do list.
Then suddenly you’re confronted with a barrage of irate replies; ‘call me now’ messages; or (worst of all) your boss is on the phone to explain where, precisely, you went wrong and how, precisely, you’re going to have to make amends. It’s a horrible feeling and it happens to each of us in our careers.
Email is a tool that has the power to strip a message of the author’s sentiment before transferring it cold into the recipient’s inbox, ripe for misinterpretation. More than that, you can’t guess what frame of mind the reader is in. You can’t know what he or she has just read or done before they click on your message. You can’t know what some of the things you’ve said will call to the reader’s mind. What would sound like a witty comment coming out of your mouth can turn into a rude or even offensive remark on the unforgiving white background of an email inbox.
Before you start
Ask yourself: is email the right tool? Can I more effectively communicate this some other way? There has, over the last couple of decades of business, been a great sweeping movement towards email as the primary means of communication. Though now it is beginning to appear that a tipping point has been reached, and people are recognising the limitations of email and the balance is shifting towards other methods. If this is a case where a quick chat with the other party would be more effective, then it makes sense to save yourself the hassle, break the endless email chain and use the most effective tool at your disposal – whatever that may be.
If this isn’t one of those cases, and email is your best bet, here are six steps you can take to make sure your email communication is as unambiguous and cannot be misinterpreted.
Step 1: Read and reread
This won’t catch every potential banana skin but it will help. Draft it and read it back straight away. Then, if you’re still worried, make a cup of tea, have a breather and come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.
Step 2: A fresh pair of eyes
If your eyes (even fresh from a cuppa) still haven’t convinced you that your email cannot be misinterpreted, why not get a colleague to have a look? Before they read it tell them all about the recipients, summarise what you’re trying to say, and then don’t be precious if they start to pick faults. It’s better you know before you send than after.
Step 3: Walk a mile in their shoes
Think about the person(s) you’re sending the email to. What is their writing style like? What are their priorities? What’s your relationship? What do they know about you already? The more you understand them the better you’ll be able to tailor your message. Read your email as if you were them and ask yourself: “how will they react to what I’ve written?”
Step 4: Cover all the bases
It’s not just the wording you’re checking, it is also the message you’re putting across. Is the thing you’re saying going to be sensitive, will it ruffle a few feathers? There’s nothing wrong with feather-ruffling per se, but if you are going to say something potentially inflammatory, make sure you put it across in the kindest way possible. Consider also who you’re sending the email to, do they all need to know all the details? Do their differing priorities mean that more than one email with a tailored message will do?
Step 5: Cut to the chase
Consider getting rid of any asides or waffle. If you are banging more than one drum at once the danger is that the rhythms get confused and all people can hear is a clatter. Don’t be afraid to simplify.
Step 6: If all else fails
If you’re still unsure if you’ll end up in hot water then maybe don’t send the message at all. There are plenty of other communications tools; face-to-face; telephone; or even video chat are all options for you.
Disclaimer: these six steps are not guaranteed to stop you from saying something you shouldn’t – there will always be one person who can find offense in the most innocuous of messages, no matter how hard you try to placate them. But, those people aside, and to paraphrase the scouts, it makes sense to be as prepared as possible.