Emails have their problems. They can suffer from old subject lines, too many topics, lack of focus, and bad punctuation. But one serious, time-wasting email problem has nothing to do with writing. That problem is reading. Actually it's poor reading–reading an email too fast or only partway before responding.
My friend Tina (not her real name) confessed to this example at lunch yesterday: She got an email from a new acting team leader, telling team members about their new roles on the team. Tina got upset when she saw that the new leader had placed a certain older, very experienced person, Jerome, in a junior role on the team. Tina crafted a sensitive email–taking a long time to get it right–explaining why the leader's decision would cause problems for Jerome and others. She recommended that the new leader rethink the roles.
Before Tina clicked Send, she wisely took a moment to reread the team leader's original message. That's when she realized she had misread it. Jerome would still be in a leadership role. Tina had read the message quickly and mixed up the names.
Tina shuddered to think of how much damage her email might have caused. The team leader might have been confused at first, then irritated and angry, then wary of Tina's motives–all because Tina had not slowed down to read the message carefully.
Sure, it is possible–even likely–that the original email wasn't written well. But a rereading of the message made it immediately clear to Tina that she had misunderstood.
Can you think of times when you have not read an email closely and ended up writing a nonsensical or an unnecessary reply? Or have you received an email whose author had obviously fluttered through your message?
I remember replying to a client to ask when she wanted to schedule a class. Too late I realized she had included the preferred date in her original message. Ouch. No harm done, but my reply made me look sloppy.
From conversations in business writing classes, I know that unread and hastily read emails lead to millions of unnecessary clarifying, questioning, and problem-solving follow-up messages.
Read your email with a sense of responsibility, and I will do the same. Yes, writers can slow us down and drive us nuts because of the way they write. But we can't use people's writing as an excuse to avoid doing our jobs. If we click Delete or Reply before a careful journey to the end of the message, we share the blame for mix-ups, conflicts, and games of email Ping-Pong.
Are you with me?
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