April 18

For real communication

If I ever have the chance to teach a college course of my own design, I will call it: “For real communication: How not to sound like a cotton-headed ninnymuggins online.” Only cool kids who have seen and loved the movie Elf will join, and it will be awesome.

The first session of my class will teach students how to write an email.

Yes, an email. You would think such a thing is common sense, but after dealing with college students from three campuses, a variety realtors in four cities, job searching, and interacting with parents, I can say this somewhat confidently: Too many people don't take their online presence seriously.

People think that their reader will give them the benefit of the doubt, that they will overlook bad grammar, misspellings, and lack of capitalization. They won't. Unconsciously, they basically can't. We use cognitive mechanisms (heuristics) to judge people quickly and efficiently, without even meaning to judge.

Here are the rules of thumb I would teach in my course:

    1. The first time you email someone, be sure to address the person you are emailing by name. Even if you only use their first name and a comma or Mr./Ms. last name and a comma, at least acknowledge that you know who you're emailing.
      In subsequent formal emails, continue to address the recipient.
      In informal emails, you can drop the recipient's name and just launch into the body paragraph.
    2. Use short paragraphs. People skim their emails. Write the email, then re-read, and take out absolutely everything that you don't need. Break up paragraphs every one to four sentences.
    3. If you need something from them, end with a polite call to action. For instance, “When you get a chance, please email that draft to me.” If you don't end with a call to action, don't be surprised if they fail to complete the action that you asked them to do, crammed between 12 wordy sentences.
    4. Find the right tone. Generally, you should try for a nice medium between a professional robot and a high school cheerleader. I tend to think that exclamation marks are a good indication of tone. No exclamation marks is on the very professional end of the spectrum (unless, of course, it's sarcastic), and five+ exclamation marks is on the cheerleader end of the spectrum. You have to judge your reader and the impression you want to give. Just be intentional about your tone.
    5. For the love of Pete, spell check, capitalize “I,” and try to use the best grammar that you can muster. If it's an important email (applying for a job or grant), have a friend read it over first.


Extra snazzy points that make you look like you've got it together in life:

Add an email signature with your name, position, company, phone number, etc. My professional signature looks like this:

Morgan MacDonald ::  Freelance Editor 
Polishing your papers, essays, and books
Morgan@paperravenediting.com :: 432-413-4383
Available for you Monday through Friday.  Email for a weekend appointment.

Extra lame points that you should avoid:

Don't use an aol, earthlink, or other random 90s email address. Show that you can keep up with the times. Bite the bullet, and get a gmail account.

Don't use an email address with numbers in it if you can at all get away with it. For gmail, “MorganMacdonald” wasn't available, so I use “MorganGMac,” the “G” being the initial for my maiden name.

What do you think? Is the online world evolving to accept terrible grammar? Or do you have other email pet peeves that you think should be avoided? Comment below!


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