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What If We Signed Our Email in Ink?

Last week I met with my friend Ira, who is a senior vice president of human resources. We talked about business writing and about the errors that fill email.

Here’s one of Ira’s thoughts:

We put our name on what we are proud of. Is that why people are comfortable making mistakes in email–because they don’t actually sign their names to it?

I believe he’s right. I believe that if we had to print each email message on letterhead, grab an ink pen, and then add our signature, we would be much more careful. We would do more than a quick grammar- and spell-check. We would probably confirm the spelling of the other person’s name, capitalize our own name at the end of the message, cut the first two unrelated sentences, make sure the address was correct, and proofread carefully.

You may be wondering “Why would we need to do that? Email is much more informal.”

But plenty of email is not informal. I receive contracts, requests for proposals, recommendations, requests, and other formal communications through email. If you work in a large company, your situation is probably the same.

Even “informal” email often has a formal context. It may be a tiny communication in a huge project, bid, program, procedure, grievance, schedule, proposal, lawsuit, official record, etc. Because of the context, even a quick two-sentence message can be more formal than it seems.

And even if it is informal, should informal be incorrect? Incoherent? I don’t think so. What’s your view?

Let’s pretend that we are putting our signature on every email. Let’s imagine that each message matters. Let’s act as if each email we send reflects something about who we are . . . because it does, doesn’t it?

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.