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An email is a wondrous thing TEXT & PHOTO: STEVE FLINDERS
Or at least it can be. I have just led a writing course for professionals who want to make their work correspondence more effective. After a few hours with them, I can see why. Their replies to my relaxed pre-course message were revealing. One started with: “Dear Mr Flinders, Reference is made to your email below,” which made me feel like a tax office. Indeed their keenness to use the passive at every opportunity suggested that their organisations are run by robots, not people. The next one said: “Morning Steve, ... Hope this helps see you Thursday,” which cheered me up again so I was willing to forgive him the missing comma after ‘helps’. Indeed, comma aversion proved to be an allergy shared by most of the group. Commas signal natural pauses in sentences but I was left gasping for mental breath by the end of some of theirs. I introduced them to fog indexing to help them keep sentence length down. While their sentences were comma-free, they strewed capital letters like used confetti randomly through their prose. CCL 64 | Issue 49 | January 2018
(Compulsive Capital Lettering) should be classed as an infectious disease. We did make some progress. The first rule of business writing – to KISS (‘Keep It Short and Simple’ or, if you prefer, ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’) your emails, led to moments of Damascene conversion for some. The idea of mirroring the tone of your correspondent certainly helped the woman who started one email with “Dear esteemed client”.
I did compromise on one issue. When I ranted against the lazy ampersand (‘&’), their addiction was too strong for me. So I have allowed each of them a quota of five for the whole of next year.
I realised two things about emails: 1. Thinking about your reader is not just to anticipate their question: “What’s in it for me?” By providing a little lightness, or a clear explanation of a difficult subject, or a satisfying solution to a problem, you are offering your correspondents a gift which they should receive with gratitude - good for your relationship and for your business. 2. Making your email a small thing of beauty through generous spacing and proper use of punctuation creates an aesthetically pleasing elegance which provides some momentary restfulness for your reader’s eyes, another cause for gratitude.
Steve Flinders is a freelance trainer, writer and coach, based in Malta, who helps people develop their communication and leadership skills for working internationally: email@example.com.
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