"It's not what you said, it's the way that you said it..."


Getting the right tone in emails

How many times has it happened to you? You’re out and about, busy, rushing here and there. You check your email on your phone and you see that one of your clients has emailed you with a query. Your first instinct is to get back to them as quickly as possible, and so in between meetings, or on the train you type a fast reply. Phew! Job done. You’re pleased because you’ve responded quickly.

But then a day or so later you find that your email was totally misunderstood. It was interpreted as curt or rude. Or maybe during your next telephone conversation with the client you sense that they are a bit distant or annoyed. Sound familiar?

We misinterpret the meaning and tone of emails around 50% of the time

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people misinterpret the meaning and tone of emails as much as 50 percent of the time. What's more, 90 percent of email recipients incorrectly believe they can interpret the tone of an email message.

So we end up with people sat in front screens feeling a bit miffed, or put out, or totally frustrated by what they’ve just read.

So what can we do to minimise the risk of misinterpretation in our emails? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Explain your situation
If you are out of the office and replying to something on your phone and short of time, you could explain that…

“I’m out of the office right now, but the short reply to your questions is “xxxxxxxxxx”. I’ll be back in the office later today and will let you have more detail then. Regards, Jackie”

So you’re letting the reader know that it’s your situation that’s creating the short, abrupt response. Not any kind of annoyance or other imagined ‘huffy’ reason.

2. Pick up the phone
Sometimes it’s best to just pick up the phone. If, when you are writing an email, you think there may be room for misinterpretation, just phone.

3. Give yourself the time you feel the email you have to write deserves
If it’s a complicated email, take your time. Write it, then leave it for a while. Go back and read it again. If you’re still not sure, ask someone else to sanity check it for you.

4. Give your email structure
Just because it’s email, doesn’t mean that you should just randomly splatter the page with the first thing that comes into your head. Plan out a structure with a beginning, middle and end. Giving your email a logical flow makes it easier to read, and is more likely to be interpreted in the right way.

5. Call to action
Think about what you want the reader to do next. I’ve often heard people say things like “…well I’d have thought it would have been obvious that I expected a reply right way.” Unless you said something along the lines of , "…we do have a deadline on this and I would appreciate it if you could get back to me by XXXX”, it may not be obvious at all.

6. Appropriate ‘openings’ and ‘closings’
This really should be common sense. Should you use, ”Yo", "Hiya", "Hey", "Sir/Madam," "Dear [first name]" or "Dear [misspelled name]”?  An inappropriate opening can offend and set the wrong tone.

If I’m replying to an emails someone has sent me, I normally follow the style they’ve used. So if they say “Hi Jackie”, I’d mirror that in my reply. If they say “Dear Jackie”, then I’d mirror that. If I’m sending the first email, and I’m not sure, I always go down the “Dear XXXX” route. It’s never wrong to be polite.

What about email endings? Examples include "Best, "All the best", "Best regards", "Best Wishes", "Sincerely", "Cordially", "Yours", "Love", "Love and Kisses" and “xoxo". If in doubt I don’t think you can go wrong with a simple “regards”.

7. Clear subject lines
Our in-boxes are clogged with all sorts of gubbins on a daily basis. So probably like you, I’m selective about what emails I open and when I open them. What I choose to open hinges on the subject line. I irritated the hell out of a colleague recently because she expected me to reply to her concerning dates for an event we’re hosting together. I didn’t reply because I had no recollection of ever seeing an email about dates.

She had added that information alongside something else she had sent me, and I simply never saw it. If she had sent me a separate email with Re: Confirmation of datesor similar, I would have opened it right away.

8. Shorter emails with specific information work best

Back in PR agency days, we used to organise a lot of overseas press tours with journalists. This meant sending detailed information to each journalist about their travel arrangements, hotel details, their itinerary, biographies of the people they would be meeting etc. etc.

We’d get to the airport and someone would moan at me that they didn’t have a phone number for the hotel they were staying at. “It was all in the email” I would say. They never read past the first couple of paragraphs. So I started sending a series of short emails, each one with a clear subject line such as Re: Your hotel details, and Re: Your flight details etc. They all got read, and it worked much better.

Do we just need smiley face emojis to clarify our mood or meaning?

It’s not just emails that cause these ‘tone’ problems, text messages and instant messaging communications are prone to the same problems. I had a coffee with a friend yesterday who told me that her daughter was totally distraught because she though her boyfriend was annoyed with her. “Why do you think that?” said my friend who looked at the straightforward text message communication totally baffled by this interpretation. “He didn’t put a smiley face emoji at the end, which means he’s annoyed.”  

Part me loves the idea that life could be so simple that all we need to do is add a smiley face or an angry face to denote our tone. Maybe that’s where we’ll end up. In the meantime, spending a little time thinking about how we come across could prevent unnecessary frustration.

That’s it for this week.

Inappropriately yours

Love and kisses

Jackie xx