What Do Your E-mail Messages Say About You?

Last night, Gail and I went to local production of the play, “My Fair Lady.” I am embarrassed to admit that I have never seen it. I had seen clips from the movie, but I had never the watched the entire thing.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/goodynewshoes, Image #5084587

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/goodynewshoes

The reason I went is that Matt Baugher, one of our Thomas Nelson Vice Presidents, was starring in the lead role of Henry Higgins. I was blown away by his performance. He sang, danced, and spoke with an English accent. I was completely swept up in the story and forgot that Matt is a colleague and dear friend.

The story itself is fascinating. The version that we saw is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s movie Pygmalion, with book, music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It is a story about Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, who takes on the challenge of transforming Eliza Doolittle, a common cockney flower girl, into a duchess.

Higgins particular expertise was that he could listen to someone speak and tell precisely where they were raised. Based on their diction, grammar, and accent, he claimed that he could determine their hometown or county of origin within six miles.

What does all of this have to do with e-mail? Plenty.

Every time you communicate, you are making a “brand impression”—for you—and for the organization you represent. What kind of impression are you making? Is it positive or negative?

I want to focus for a few moments on e-mail, since for most of us that comprises 90% of our communication today.

Here are five ways to make a positive impression with your e-mail messages:

  1. Respond in a timely manner. I can’t overstate the importance of this. As I have said elsewhere, to whatever extent I have been successful, it is due in large part to the fact that I am generally very responsive. My goal is to respond to all e-mails the same day I receive them.
  2. Address the sender personally. Don’t just start writing. Use the person’s name. Nothing is sweeter to the recipient’s ear than their own name. And in the age of unprecedented spam, using a person’s name indicates that you are a real person, not a robot.
  3. Use proper grammar. You don’t have to obsess about this, but observe the basics: use complete sentences, check your punctuation and spelling, and proofread your message. And please, don’t use ALL CAPS. If you are feeling a little insecure about this, I highly recommend that you read a basic English grammar book, like English Grammar for Dummies.
  4. Keep the message short and your intention clear. As a recipient, there is nothing worse than receiving a long message from someone, reading it, and still not knowing what the person wants or is saying. When in doubt, use short sentences, short paragraphs, and short messages.
  5. Use a proper signature block. Use your e-mail program to create a standardized, e-mail signature that includes your full name, logo, company, address, telephone numbers, website or blog, twitter handle, etc. In my opinion, it should be simple but professional.

You may not have to impress a professor of phonetics, but your peers, subordinates, superiors, and external business associates will still come to conclusions about you, based on your oral and written communication skills. Therefore, it is worth taking time to improve these skills and become intentional about how you communicate.

Question: What else should you do to make a positive brand impression with your e-mail messages? What should you avoid? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/vicki_small vicki_small

    Michael, I agree with you, although I don't typically use a signature block when e-mailing my family or others who know me well.

    I'm a former college-level English teacher. That short-lived career followed more than 20 years in office work–receptionist to executive secretary, legal secretary, some personnel, some purchasing, and a little bookkeeping. I notice typo's, wrong words, poor punctuation (or none!), and all of the ills that seem to have taken over our fascinating language.

    But none of them irk me as much as those I find–too late–in my own writing! (Would you believe I once re-read a paper written in the final semester of my Master's program and saw where I had written, "I would of…" instead of "I would have…"??) And yet, many of my graduate classmates routinely dropped all such constraints, in their e-mails!

    But brevity is not my strong point, which I think you have figured out. :o) So I'm going, now!

  • Colleen Coble

    Great suggestions, Mike! Another thing is never, never send an email that deals with something sticky without sleeping on it. Or better yet, pick up the phone and call.

  • http://www.marlataviano.com Marla Taviano

    Funny you should talk about Matt Baugher and good e-mails in the same post. I got an e-mail from Matt a couple weeks ago about a book project, and I was struck by how professional it was, yet so kind and warm at the same time. It gave me a great first impression of him. I had no idea he was a budding actor on the side!

  • http://blog.myfamilysecrets.org Mary DeMuth

    This is lovely. You know by now I'm an email-management disciple of yours. I think part of my success has come from prompt, succinct emails. If it takes me longer than two days to respond, I say I'm sorry. And I'm much more relentless about zeroing out my inbox at night. This has helped me feel more peaceful as I go to sleep. Thanks again, Michael.

    Oh, and I'd like to highlight the professional part. Please, please look at what you write in your emails, particularly when you're posting to writing groups. Your errors look more blaring there.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/human3rror human3rror

    yup. i'm pretty sure i broke every single one of those with you.

  • http://www.emailsanityexpert.com Randy Dean

    I actually wrote a book on the topic — Taming the E-mail Beast — coming out in the next 4-6 weeks nationally. Not only do I agree with much of what you've said, but I also go one step farther — I strongly recommend that every receiver of a message should have an accompanying task for receiving the message. By making e-mails task specific, that cuts down on many of the unnecessary "FYI" e-mails and CCs people are sending these days. In my speaking programs on the topic, I tell people that "FYI" in these days of e-mail overload stands for "For Your Ignorement", since many people glaze them over or don't read them at all. Good stuff here — thanks for the post.

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Great post, Mike. I always take time to reread my emails and think about them before I press send. Clear, concise emails are key.

    Also, remember, emails "live forever" on some server somewhere. I know the media tries to make a big deal about politicians who don't know how to use email, but they are smart. Be prepared for something written in an email to be public. When in doubt, don't write the email or pick up the phone.

    And congrats on seeing My Fair Lady!

    Rachel

  • http://lynnrush.wordpress.com/ Lynn Rush

    Great post, Michael.

    Email can be such a great thing, and then not so great. Especially those dealing with sticky topics as Colleen mentioned. I've received some "sticky" emails before, and I didn't hit reply, I picked up the phone.

    Thanks for the post, great topic.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mvivas mvivas

    I agree that there is nothing more frustrating than sending an email and waiting days for a reply. It's unacceptable! in the world we live in today. I usually hear the same old story that "they are too busy" to respond to you promptly. However, if something (or someone) is important to you, you make time to respond, no matter who you are and what you do for a living. Oh, and I don't use a footer for my emails unless I'm dealing with clients.

    One pet-peeve of mine, is when I come into the office to find an email from someone who needs something done ASAP and doesn't even bother to say good morning, but to just email their "request". I appreciate emails that are polite and personal.

  • http://www.chriscrimmins.com Chris Crimmins

    I completely agree. One of the areas I need to work on myself is the signature, so thanks for the push. Being prompt is definitely important.

    Do you think a cellphone reply can be different slightly in content?

    Besides being positive, deciding whether the email is close ended, or open ended is important. Do we need a response, are we waiting on a reply, or is this the answer in itself.

    Thanks for the note

  • Andrea

    I'm interested in the first advice. I use the 2-minutes rule to process my emails. But what to do if the answer requires a longer time to be written? How can you reply in the same day?
    Thanks!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      I rigorously follow the two-minute rule. I do not have to compromise my
      rules, other than with close friends and colleagues.

    • http://www.oohpublishing.co.uk Jo Bottrill

      Hi Andrea. I think the two minute rule is great. If the message in question needs a more considered approach or further research your correspondent should value that. I think a simple acknowledgement letting them know you'll be working on a full response in x time frame would mean a lot.

  • Denis

    I am pleased to see there are others that agree with the way I look at e-mails sent me, and especially when it comes to your third listed essential.

    As one who ever attempts to keep to the accepted rules of grammar, I deplore the poor writing standards, so commonly seen today. Especially when accompanied by bad spelling. I view the lack of both, as rudeness on the part of the writer, although it allows me, the recipient, to get an insight into their character.

    Speaking for myself, such sloppy habits are construed as coming from someone with little or no pride in what they do, whilst showing little or no respect for me.

    Enjoy reading your every Blog entry along with the comments that follow.

    Denis.

  • http://www.robertgtaylor.com Robert_G_Taylor

    I would add one other item. As a sender, I often wonder if the person received it (with strange email and spam filtering). If you receive something , a short email that says, "thanks, I received it" will save the sender the anxiety of wondering if it was received.

  • Steve B

    Excellent points, Mike. I'm a big fan of simplicity.

    My email pet peeves are those huge paragraphs about confidentiality, (usually unnecessary,) and signatures that include too much information. One colleague of mine has a 9 line signature.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/rickwomack rickwomack

      Perhaps this is too off subject, but I was considering a legal confidentiality statement at the end of our office emails.
      What do others think?
      Is this advisable?
      How can it be done, if advisable, with good taste?

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/jonsmith jonsmith

        My company has a confidentiality statement that I include in a very small font in the signature of emails that I send. The confidentiality statement is only included if it's a new email that I'm creating. I don't include it in my reply signature. If you use a small font and only have it once in the email, it's usually not that distracting in my experience.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I agree. If its something I cant get too immediately, I send an
    acknowledgment.

  • http://www.emailsanityexpert.com Randy Dean

    Andrea — I recommend taking all e-mails that will take longer than 2-3 minutes, and converting them into tasks that are either on your handwritten or Outlook task lists. Then prioritize them so you act on the most important and/or urgent ones first, once you've cleared all the quick little ones out of the way. Feel free to send a little acknowledgment of receipt to people to set appropriate expectations ("I'll get back to you within 24-48 hours on this — need a little time to get it done), but then queue it in with your other task responsibilities and ALWAYS prioritize. By the way, once you either deal with a quick message OR task a longer-frame message, get that message OUT of your inbox (delete or file it). That way you won't keep re-reading it when the action has already been taken or at least identified.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

    I rigorously follow the two-minute rule. I do not have to compromise myrules, other than with close friends and colleagues.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I totally agree with the polite and personal part. It doesnt take that much
    extra effort.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Re: Colleen Coble commented on What Do Your Email Messages Say About You? I totally agree with this. I had one last night. I was ready to blast off a response, took a deep breath, and decided to sleep on it. I’m glad I did!

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I totally agree with this. I had one last night. I was ready to blast off a response, took a deep breath, and decided to sleep on it. I’m glad I did!

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I totally agree with the polite and personal part. It doesn't take that much
    extra effort.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    I agree. If it's something I can't get too immediately, I send an
    acknowledgment.

  • http://www.danicafavorite.blogspot.com/ Danica

    This is a great post. I admit, I fall very short on the signature line. I don't have one. Part of my reason is that I use my email address for multiple purposes and I don't know what information is appropriate to include in my signature line. How do you determine what to include?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jonsmith jonsmith

    This is great. I usually follow most of these rules, but it's good to get a refresher on them. Especially the part about making a "brand impression". I think that's the easiest thing to forget when your communicating via email. Thanks!

  • Sandy Bradley

    Mike – thank you so much for the suggestion about the signatures including a phone number. So often I need to call the person because their request is unclear so we spend unnecssary time sending them a response to please call me or to please send their phone number so I may call them.

  • http://www.jackswebpage.net Jack Collins

    Mike, Great rules of thumb for effective email! In addition to a simple and professional signature block, I also add my first name (in all lower case) to the last of the real content, to give it a personal touch. Just like I do with blog comments. jack

  • Audra Silva

    Great tips. I struggle with keeping my inbox empty. I think I'll browse your other email posts, too. Thanks for a great post.

  • http://stric9design.wordpress.com/ Patrick Turner

    Michael,
    Those are some great tips. One of my peeves about emails is someone who says "See below" and you find a thread through twenty other people and you have to sort though it all to find the one sentence with important information.

    If someone forwards information they should take the time to clean it up and remove the irrelevant information. Especially when it goes through a large number of people.

    Its also funny to see peoples comments and how they get great advice and can't use it in their next sentence. Maybe you should do a post on "Comments and what they say about you."

  • Audra Silva

    Patrick,
    I think it takes time for old habits to be replaced with new ones. I know I'll have to retrain a few of mine after reading Michael's blog.

    Audra Silva

  • http://www.TamingEmailBook.com Randy Dean

    If you are really interested in effective e-mail habits, my book that I mentioned in a previous post is launching on Amazon.com right now. It is all about smart e-mail practices — Taming the E-mail Beast: 45 Key Strategies for Better Managing Your E-mail Overload. Check it out at http://www.TamingEmailBook.com — we've got some great additional bonuses too.

  • pritchett4

    I recall reading (don't have the link handy) sometime ago that one of the advantages of email over phone call and snail mail was the ability for it to be "quick and dirty" — that one didn't have to do all the punctuation and formalities and yet could communicate quickly. I take it that this has changed? Obviously, I have violated some of principles in this post. My apologies ;-).

  • pritchett4

    I meant to ask a question in the above post. Has the the thought process changed in email from being a quick means of communication, to one that needs to follow proper grammar? Inquiring minds need to know.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I don't think I can speak for everyone who uses email. My own view is that email is a reflection of me and therefore I want to use proper grammar and spelling. I think text-messaging is less formal and more forgiving. But even there I think the bar is being raised. Others may differ.

  • http://twitter.com/lynnpina @lynnpina

    Great post. I have had to give this "talk" to people who have worked for me, especially younger ones, many times. People tend to take the informality of email too far and forget that it's about communication. I'm a big proponent of bullets and numbered lists for scannability. One other thing I've told people I've managed is to apply the CEO rule to your emails. If the CEO of our company were to read your email, what impression would he get of you and is it the one you want? And would he be able to read from the bottom up and know the entire situation just from reading the email? The point I was getting at jere was to make sure your responses put things in context without over communicating, in case your email gets forwarded to someone who is not that familiar with the background/context. The CEO rule also helps when you are debating if you want to hit send on a sensitive email as it makes you consider whether this is best left for a face to face conversation instead of a written one.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/johnmrowley johnmrowley

    Hi Michael, Happy New Years. I know you use a mac, which email program do you use?
    Thanks and have a wonderful and blessed year!
    John
    My recent post How a fat behind effects a profitable bottom line!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I use Apple Mail. I used to use Microsoft Entourage, but, with Snow Leopard, I was able to ditch that. I really like Mail. It is very simple to use.

      • http://peakperformancelifestyle.com/ John Rowley

        Michael thank you for your timely response! It was very helpful!

  • http://www.themotherlode.wordpress.com Theresa Lode

    Ugh. You got me. I was horrified to see that an email from my eBook vendor had been sitting in my inbox for over 3 weeks. I will respond promptly when I receive an email….I will respond promptly…..(perhaps I should write this out 500 times?)
    Thanks for the important lesson, Professor. ;)
    My recent post The extraordinary in the ordinary

  • http://twitter.com/vrothenburg @vrothenburg

    Great material, Michael!

    I'd add: Invest in a REAL e-mail address, i.e. you@yourdomain.com . That might be a given for a major company like Thomas Nelson, but you'd be surprised how many professionals handle their correspondance through gmail, yahoo, and the likes. Artists, consultants and such seem to be especially fond of these free services.

    I think that reflects very poorly on a brand. As a budding creator, I realize money can be extremely tight, but a professional domain and e-mail address are must-haves in my book. I'm not going to give my money to someone who bills me through yahoo. It's just bush league; — IMHO, of course.

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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    Don't worry about it. I've never seen The Sound of Music. And I was born and raised in Austria.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      PS: Regarding the e-mail signature block, do you recommend linking personal website, Twitter address, etc., or is there the danger of the message ending up in the recipient's spam folder because it contains "too many links" (which is often taken as an indication of spam)? Should one include all those addresses in the signature block but un-link them, even though this would render them non-clickable?

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        I have four links in my email signature. I have never had any complaint. I make them clickable as a convenience to my readers. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/HomesatHelper Belinda Parrish

    Mr. Hyatt,

    Thank you for the great reminder. I have learned so much from reading your blog over the past year.

    Have a blessed CHRISTmas!

    Belinda

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Belinda. I appreciate your kind words.

  • Tony

    Returning all emails the same day? Nothing short of a miracle. I refuse to do that. I want to have a life, time to connect with people face to face. I hate that I have to respond to FB messages, texts, emails, and voicemails. Good for you for being so timely, but some of us just need to do what we can with 1-2 hours a day on email and that’s it. This year I deleted all unsawered emails on January 1st and had a fresh start. I’d like to do that each month to keep fresh and accept I can’t possibly get back to everyone.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Actually, by getting to zero each day (or almost zero), I do have a life. The key is in making decisions quickly about the processing of those emails. I don’t spend more than an hour a day on email, and I get a couple of hundred messages a day. Thanks.

  • http://byphyllis.com Phyllis

    Great advice. Wish everyone who uses email could read it.
    I’d add one more thing–if you feel that you want to/must forward an email,
    delete all of the addresses of others that may be in the email.

  • http://johnpauldewalt.wordpress.com John Paul DeWalt

    Love My Fair Lady!  What I call a dream-builder movie/musical.  Higgins, pompous ass that he is, helps a flower girl reach her dream of bettering herself.  He, himself, suffers from self-love and no social niceties.

    A signature block for emails, complete with “full name, logo, company, address, telephone numbers, website or blog, twitter handle”?  Interesting thought.  I’ve been using my initials alone.  I’ll have to figure out how to add the rest.

  • Mindy Ferguson

    Great post, Mike. Thanks. I will be adding a logo to my signature. Great tip!

  • http://pollyannaonpurpose.blogspot.com/ Jen Moore

    I agree that text is more forgiving. And I agree the bar is rising, especially given a smart phone keyboard instead of T9. There doesn’t seem to be the same justification for shorthand or abbreviation, although the jury may still be out on punctuation.

  • Simon

    Michael, it seems the formatting of the article is messed up a bit. The quote 

    ” Every time you communicate, you are making a “brand impression”—for you—and for the organization you represent.” 
    is not displayed correctly on OS X and Chrome.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Simon. I think I fixed it.

  • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

    Thank you Michael.
    I have updated my signature block since reading one of your other blogs and Platform.  Name and blog and Twitter and Facebook and a little saying I use.
    Putting the persons name and keeping it short is good.  I was talking with friend about this and how we almost have to be overly to sweet in words to make sure the right tone is conveyed.  Knowing when to email and when to call is big.
    Thank you again sir.

    K, bye

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      I did the same thing with my email signature, Chris. It’s much more clear and concise. I also added a simple tagline with a link to our new promo video that has helped get the word out about that, too!

      • http://christopherbattles.net/ Christopher Battles

        Good idea John.

        K, bye

  • http://twitter.com/gutsygracelife Dr. Sheila Cornea

    Thanks for the insightful article.

  • http://twitter.com/gutsygracelife Dr. Sheila Cornea

    Great points, Michael. I always like to add a warm greeting to connect personally in the first sentence as well. Sometimes it is easy to jump right to task, but connecting before a request or directive is so important. Also, proofreading is necessary even in brief emails. I’ve seen some pretty funny slip-ups from auto-corrects!

  • http://www.myhelpsource.com/ Guy… @MyHelpSource

    Michael and All –

    This is a great piece and it is nice to see that somebody agrees with me about the importance of a proper signature block. When I’ve been in charge, I’ve always insisted that my teammates include signature blocks that made it simple for their correspondents to contact them. 

    At the very least, a signature block should include the sender’s full name and organization, an email address and telephone number. Anything less and it appears that you are not open to further communications. It is also helpful to include the mailing address, website, etc. 

    Additionally, the signature block is a excellent place to build on the image of your brand (e.g., share brief slogans or corporate values, highlight products or services, etc.).

    Finally, while not mentioned directly, I’ve found it handy to include the bottom line up front (BLUF) in my correspondence. I will frequently type either “BLUF:” or “Bottom Line Up Front:” and then tell my readers exactly what I want to achieve with my email (e.g., express my gratitude, solicit feedback, ask for ideas, provide a recommendation, etc.). That way, the reader knows exactly why I am writing and they can fit the remainder of my email into the context I’ve provided. 

    Onward!

    Guy

    • http://theordainedbarista.com/ Barry Hill

      Guy,

      I love the BLUF! I try to implement it when I can.

  • Gregg

    Mike,

    It is generally my practice to do much of what has been suggested here.  Responding quicker is definitely an area to improve upon as well as keeping it short and to the point.

    There are those times where it is easy to obsess a bit too much about what I am writing, so finding a balance between being too wordy and replying in a timely manner will be a goal to pursue.

    That and adding the rest of my info the the address block.

    Thanks!

  • Deborah H. Bateman

    Michael, thanks for sharing your helpful tips about E-mail messages.