The Terrible Truth About E-Mail

Hate it or love it, if you’re in business, you use e-mail every day. And because you use it, you may be under the mistaken impression that e-mail is the ideal technology for staying in touch. The terrible truth is that it is the one communication medium most apt to stir up trouble. Why? Because it is the most easily misinterpreted form of communication you have available to you.

I remember sending a friendly e-mail for late payment to a client who managed the bonds division of a major bank. A reply came back almost instantly. It said: the bank is good for the money. Greg.

I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine what had made Greg so angry. Had I inadvertently offended? Had I somehow stepped on tender toes? I knew he was pleased with the successful project I had just completed. I also knew that he knew his payment was overdue.

I looked at Greg’s message again; I looked at my original message to him. And I could find no reason for his curt response. So I asked a colleague. She too was stymied. I showed Greg’s note to a few others at the office and nobody could come up with a reasonable explanation for Greg’s anger. Yet we all agreed that Greg sounded angry. So I picked up the phone.

Greg greeted me with trills of laughter. He had intended his note to be funny. How could I have been so mistaken? Easy.

Because it is so simple to dash off an e-mail, people have become rather casual about it. They may pay little attention to their choice of language, their punctuation, their grammar, or even their use of upper and lower case. And because they want to be efficient, they keep their e-mails short. Sometimes, too short. And that’s often where trouble starts, because readers tend to fill in the blanks and a blank screen leaves lots of room for misinterpretation. That can result in unhappy customers.

To make your customers happy, you need to know the same thing I tell participants in my e-mail workshops: the rules of good writing apply to e-mail just as they do to snail mail. And there’s more.

Don’t use all caps — you sound like you are SHOUTING. Don’t use all lower case letters — you look lazy. Don’t use street slang — you sound adolescent. Don’t use acronyms and jargon your reader may not understand. And don’t ask your reader to scroll through dozens of lines just because you can’t be bothered to shorten and sharpen the note; cut the excess and keep only what you need to establish context.

Screen readers will read for about 11 seconds before becoming annoyed, so do structure your e-mail in small, digestible bites. (In snail mail, we call those bites paragraphs.) Do ask readers to click on another document rather than asking them to scroll.

Most importantly, do remember that e-mail is a cold, unforgiving technology so make a special effort to convey friendliness and warmth. Do use what I call shirtsleeve English — good, conversational language — so you sound like the helpful person you are. You’ll find your readers are delighted with the attention. And do check your spelling — or risk looking sloppy.

If you are in sales, your e-mail should be a reliable sales tool. If your business demands e-mail for service or support, you must understand the inherent goods and bads of the medium — or you lose.

Here are seven easy rules to help you write right.


  1. write in a warm, conversational tone
  2. use attachments rather than too many words
  3. keep only what you need to establish context when you are forwarding
  4. capitalize words at the beginning of sentences and capitalize proper names
  5. keep your note brief, but not so short it sounds curt
  6. write to express, not to impress
  7. avoid sloppy writing and slang.


Author, consultant, trainer and coach, Fern Lebo is also president of FrontRunner Communications, adjunct faculty at Auburn University and frequent keynote speaker. In workshops, seminars, and keynotes, Lebo’s clients master the professional techniques they need to win. Find out more at


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