When the language is fine but it is still a bad email

So…The spelling is fine, there are no grammar mistakes, it’s clear what the other person needs to do – and it’s still a bad email.

I received an email like that last week. I’m not going to name and shame the person or the company, which is really big enough to do better, but I thought there were some learning points that I could take from the experience and use as a basis for my blog post.

The thing about teaching English is that I don’t just approach it from the perspective of an English teacher. I have also worked as a Communications Manager, which involved looking at messages, anticipating how they would be received, and working out what could be done to improve them before anyone else saw them.

The background is that I and a group of other small businesses received an email from a larger company with whom we work, asking us to do something. What we needed to do was clear, but it would be a lot of work. We’re under no obligation to do it, although if we don’t, we probably won’t continue working with the company.

So what’s the problem?

2 important things were missing.

In fact, you don’t need both of them, but if you can include one or the other, you’re more likely to get a more positive response from the reader.

The things that were missing

The first thing is the reason.

If you’re asking people who work for you to do something, you may not always give the reason, although it can help people to feel more included when you do.

Maybe it’s not always possible – sometimes there are legal reasons why you can’t give out all the information, or maybe it’s confidential. But especially when people aren’t going to be happy about what you’re asking them to do, it can help if they understand the reason for it.

Maybe a product has been discontinued, so you need to remove all references to it on your site because people won’t be able to buy it. Perhaps an old system is no longer being supported, so there needs to be a new process for getting the same job done. Maybe there is no longer budget for a particular activity, so even though it was popular, it needs to be cancelled. Maybe another company changed something about the way they work, and this change needs to be passed along to the other people involved in the project or activity.

None of these things make doing the job more appealing, but they help people to understand the reason why.

Sometimes this isn’t done within teams or when orders are passed down the chain of command, but when you’re working with external companies, you often don’t have the authority to just tell them to do what you want them to, so you may need to think a bit more about getting people on board with the idea.

Secondly, what are the benefits?

I know this is going to be a pain now, but when it’s done, we’ll be able to save time/reduce costs/have a system that’s easier to use/access this information remotely/make the process simpler. All of these things are good, and they can help motivate people to do their part and make the thing a reality.

Questions to ask

Before sending off an email, it sometimes helps to ask yourself one or both of these questions:

How is the recipient likely to feel when they read this?
What do you think they will do?

I find the second question easier to answer because it’s more concrete, and sometimes you have no idea how another person will feel, but sometimes you need to step back from your involvement in the communication and try to imagine how you would feel if you only had the information in the email. Is it enough to let you know what’s going on? Might you feel confused? Would you feel enthusiastic or have a lot of questions? Would you know why you were being asked to do something? Would it be top of your priority list?

Then, what would you do? Would you do it willingly? Would you have all the information you needed?

In terms of my response – I felt quite annoyed, because I was being asked to do something with no understanding of why or what good would come of it. It would be an inconvenience and something I don’t have much time for. What did I do? Put it to the bottom of my to-do list. It’s up to me whether I do it and continue working with the company, or save myself some time and look for a more beneficial partnership.

But for me, it really felt like a missed opportunity, because with slightly better copy, the marketing manager could have easily sent out an email that got people on board to adopt the changes.

Rambling on for ages will make people switch off, but if you just focus on what needs to happen, and don’t say why or how the changes will be a good thing, you are likely to make people either ignore the request, do it and resent every minute, or complain, which also reduces productivity.

So, if you’re learning English, remember that a good email isn’t only defined by how well you use grammar and check your spelling. Your message is also important. How does it come across to the other person, and have you included everything they need to know?

I also talked about this topic on this week’s episode of the English with Kirsty podcast.

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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