When it comes to email, Ben Carpenter wishes more people would follow Shakespeare's advice that brevity is the soul of wit. Carpenter, an author with a long career in finance, doesn't see much of it — brevity, that is — these days.
"Keeping the organization of the email simple and to the point is something people miss," he lamented. Carpenter said long, rambling missives represent the most common mistake he sees among professional emails.
Carpenter, author of The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Start a Business, and Live a Happy Life, said a lengthy email is by no means the only mistake that people make. Another big one is being too informal. LOL and OMG may work in texts to friends, but it's probably best to avoid them in formal emails to colleagues and superiors, he said.
Sarcasm is also a bad idea. "One, it can be misunderstood. Two, it can come across as being mean-spirited and it's never helpful in your career to be viewed that way," he said.
Then there can be a lack of discernment. You know the phrase, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"? Well, it doesn't apply to email. Just about any electronic message you send can be retrieved from cyberspace.
Carpenter has a simple rule: "For any email, I assume that email could at some point be published on the front page of the New York Times," he said. "And if I don't want it on the front page of the New York Times, I don't write it."
Likewise, it's never good to write in anger. We've all had those moments when we want to respond to an email from a boss or a colleague with a few choice words.
Just don't do it, Carpenter advises. "Lashing out, almost without exception, is a bad thing," he said. "The standard I try to use is that if it ever crosses my mind that this might not be a good thing to do, I don't do it."
If you need to discuss a controversial or personal issue — a complex one, or one that can be easily misunderstood — it's best to do so in person, face to face, he said.
Other tips for writing effective emails:
Read the note carefully before sending it: Make sure you've entered the correct addresses and included the necessary information. Check for typos and misspellings.
Don't use the BCC feature, which allows you to blind copy some individuals without other recipients knowing it. Carpenter cautioned against using it, saying it often can be "construed as promoting dishonesty and a lack of transparency. People receiving an email should understand who else is on the email."
Use a clear subject line: Sometimes leaving the line blank or filled in with a one-word description like "meeting" doesn't cut it. Carpenter suggested using keywords to give a short description, such as "PowerPoint for Jones proposal attached."
Use the proper form of address. Titles such as Mr. and Mrs. are preferable until you know a person prefers to be addressed by first name or until he or she requests it. Carpenter also urges writers to avoid starting with "Hi" or "Hello" until that precedent has been set by the other party.
In the end, he sees electronic letters as an effective tool. "To me, email is the proper form of business communication because it is so efficient," he said.
Just remember to keep it short.