Top 5 Email Disasters

Do you know the top 5 Email Disasters? Email does make the exchange of online correspondence swifter than ever before. Yet, speed does not automatically guarantee effective communication. Speed is just not enough.

There used to be a time when business letters had to be typed on a typewriter and personal letters had to be written by hand. Was communication much better back then? Not necessarily so, yet communication back then may actually be more effective than today’s online communication. What changed?

Not much has changed in terms of the principles of effective communication. Technology merely made the exchange of messages faster. Thus, a disregard of the tenets of effective communication will continue to result in communication failure, regardless of how fast messages are delivered.

Many email users today—often out of ignorance rather than willful abuse or misuse—disregard several “etiquette rules” that make email an efficient tool for effective communication. Here are the top five frequent screw-ups when using email.

1. Inviting Further Questions

One frequently issued guideline in composing email messages, especially those that pertain to business concerns, is that of answering all questions in one go. This rule exists for a very practical purpose—communication efficiency. A disregard of this rule almost always leads to a long-winded thread that could have been avoided if the message was originally well-thought out.

There is nothing wrong about long-winded conversations per se, but if they can be avoided, the better for your business. Every minute counts in the world of business. When replying to an inquiry message, then, try to foresee related questions that the message sender may potentially ask in relation to the original inquiry. By addressing those related questions, you save both your and your recipient’s time. More importantly, your recipient will start thinking that your company is a thoughtful one—and this is one plus point in your business’ favor.

An example is in order here. For instance, you receive an inquiry about the modes of payment that your company accepts. A routine reply to such an inquiry would probably be: “Thank you for your interest in our products. We accept major credit cards (VISA, AmEx, MasterCard), PayPal, manager’s checks, and direct bank deposits. Please feel free to contact us again for other concerns.”

A more thoughtful response to the same inquiry would include additional useful information that will preempt further questions. Thus, a better reply would probably include not just the answer to the original question but also such other information as how to place orders, available promos (or maybe discounts), and a link to the order page.

2. Unclear Messages

There are many easy ways to make your message unclear and inaccurate. The most common ones are misspellings, faulty grammar, poor sentence construction, and my pet peeve—punctuation misuse (or absence of proper punctuation).

No way can you squirm yourself out of the essentials of good composition. Not even your hectic job as a CEO or as a very very busy executive of whatever rank, can excuse you from good, clear, and accurate composition. Why? A clear and accurate message is a great time-saver, while an unclear and inaccurate message simply fosters another long-winded conversation whose intent is clarification. Yet, if you only spend time to compose your messages as clearly and as accurately as you can, there will be little need for further clarificatory questions.

Many textbooks, manuals, web pages, and other online resources encourage you to be brief and direct to the point. If you can convey instructions in the least amount of words, well and good. But, in reality, conciseness often needs to give way to clarity. So, never sacrifice clarity on the altar of conciseness. And, take time to press the comma or the period button. Don’t worry. It takes less than a second to do so.

Another benefit to composing clear and accurate messages is psychological in nature. A recipient who reads such messages will form a positive impression of you and your company.

3. Truncating Messages

There are at least three ways to truncate a message that you are replying to. One is to compose an entirely new message rather than hitting the reply button. The second way is to click the reply button and then delete the automatically quoted message. And, the third way is to set your email client to leave out the original message when you compose a reply. Whichever of these ways you are currently using, stop using them from hereon. Here’s why.

By default, most email clients—either standalone installations or Web-based—automatically include the original message whenever you reply. There’s a logical reason for that: context. Sure, you can spend time looking for the original email that you are referring to, but are you going to go down that lane if you have hundreds (or maybe thousands) of email messages stored in your inbox?

So, keep the original conversation thread in place. Doing so will save you time in the long run, especially with lengthy exchanges over a certain period.

4. Unhelpful Subject Lines

Subject lines are not mere labels or identifiers. They are supposed to be brief, informative, and useful titles, much like the headline for a news article. Yet, many email writers hardly provide meaningful subject lines. Worse, some don’t even include a subject line.

Since subject lines facilitate faster scanning of email messages by the recipient, they must be concise, meaningful, and specific. Consider these two subject lines: “Here’s the Product Info You Requested” and “Details About Product XYZ, Model 123ABC.” Between the two, which one is more helpful? And, which one gives the reader a better idea on what the email’s content is all about?

So, provide meaningful subject lines for your email messages.

5. Unreviewed Email Drafts

This is the most pernicious of all screw-ups. This is also not confined to email writing alone but also to other forms of writing. Email is essentially writing. Since it is so, the process of composing an email is the same as that of writing in general. Yet, many email writers skirt the part where the draft is supposed to be reviewed and edited. Most writers of business emails often write a draft and send it as final copy. This is a very risky practice.

For one, it is bad for business image. An unpolished copy reflects on the image and competence of your business. Although a few misspellings and one or two grammatical oversights are forgivable, the frequency by which they occur over a period can backfire on your business image.

Another reason is that the editing stage can help you tighten your sentences and make the unclear ones clearer. If you send out unclear messages, you are inviting further questions, and the process can eat away at your productivity.

So, always review your drafts before you click the send button.

In the age of Internet technology, email has made message delivery just a little slower than lightning speed. But, this is no surefire guarantee of clarity and proper use of the technology to facilitate understanding. Therefore, write messages that are clear and that address (in advance) potential related questions. Save yourself time by not removing email features that provide helpful context. Title your messages with meaningful subject lines. And, most importantly, always check and recheck your messages before sending them.

Guest author Jerlou Thompson is the marketing communications director of, a business email hosting company. Image by Keith Ramsey.  

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About the Author: P Chandra is editor of QOT, one of India's earliest tech bloggers since 2004. A tech enthusiast with expertise in coding, WordPress, web tools, SEO and DIY hacks.