10 Mistakes That Stop People From Reading Your Email

Collectively, we receive a TON of email. On an average day, I receive between 75 and 100 emails between my personal and business accounts and I bet your inboxes aren’t much different. There’s no way a person can possibly give attention to every single message; for each email I receive, I immediately make one of three decisions – take action, file away for the future, or delete on the spot. Given the volume of email and how little we can actually read, we thought it would be worth talking about the mistakes people make that land their emails straight in the virtual trash bin – in no particular order, here are 10 of the most common bloopers we’ve seen:

#1 The subject line is unclear

Subject lines need to be specific and incentivize action, but I’ve received so many that have said things like “Hi,” “Introductions,” or, worst of all, “FW: FW: FW: FW.” I mean, really, if you needed me to do something with this you would have deleted all those forwards and made a heading that was relevant to the content. If I’ve got 99 other emails to read, these are the ones I’d eliminate first.

#2 There’s too much information

There is nothing worse than opening an email that has paragraphs upon paragraphs of text. It’s overwhelming! Emails should be written like newspaper articles, with the point up front. If more supporting information is needed, a simple line that says: “Additional background is detailed below for reference” and put a bold label above the start of the background text.

“Emails should be written like newspaper articles, with the point up front.”

#3 The request is vague

If the purpose of the email is to inform, state that it is inform-only. If the purpose is for the recipient to take action, explicitly state what action is needed, and by what date. If you’re making a request of someone to take action, you owe it to them to make it as easy as possible to follow the instructions. I think people sometimes shrink from being direct in written communication for fear of offending, but in reality making a vague and confusing request is just wasting the recipient’s time.

#4 The message is irrelevant or unnecessary

Before you even start drafting an email, ask yourself this question: “Is there any way that this information/request can be covered in an existing meeting, through a conversation with a peer, or via Googling?” If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that your to-be-drafted email is a waste of time. There have been plenty of times where I’ve received emails and thought to myself, “Seriously? A three-second Google search will give them that information” and passed along the suggestion.

#5 The message adds no value to the recipient

If it’s an inform-only message, the receiver should need or want the information. (And if you’re honest with yourself, it’s pretty easy to figure out who needs and wants what information when you consider it against the default position of less email is better.) If you send unnecessary emails, it trains the recipients to recognize that notes coming from you can be filtered out on the spot.

#6 There are spelling and grammatical errors

This might be a personal pet peeve of mine, but spelling and grammatical errors are one of the most common reasons that I judge an email to be unimportant. A typo here and there we all make and understand. Blatantly spelling names wrong, using incorrect grammar, etc. says to the recipient that it wasn’t worth the effort to review your message carefully, and, therefore it’s not worth their effort to read.

#7 It’s lacking context

Occasionally, we need to reach out to people cold because someone recommended their name for X request and you’ll be meeting them virtually via email. In these scenarios, it is critical to set the context up front: state your name, who referred you, the nature of your request, and ask to point you to the right person if perhaps they don’t have the information you need, an offer to set up a call or do anything possible to make it easy for them, and a huge thanks for their assistance.

#8 You’ve got the wrong recipient

My consulting firm has an audit practice, and I receive emails every week from recruiters wanting to talk to me about accounting positions. I used to respond to politely let them know that I’m not their candidate, and suggest they leverage LinkedIn to verify who’s in what practice (again, it’s like Googling…); now, I auto-delete these.

#9 It’s presumptuous or rude

Sometimes, in an attempt to make sure that the recipient understands our email is relevant, interesting, and beneficial, we inadvertently make presumptuous or rude comments. Like promising to tell them something they don’t already know (but they might) or promising a fantastic opportunity we’re sure they’d love (but they might not). It’s typically best to stick to the facts and leave editorializing to a minimum.

#10 The demands are unreasonable

We live in a fast-paced world, and want everyone to keep up. However, it’s important to temper that drive and respect others crazy busy lives and schedules. If you’re asking to schedule a call with someone, your email needs to come with plenty of advance time. If you’re asking for help, you need to suggest a time frame but offer to work around the recipient’s schedule. There have been many times where I’ve gotten a rushed request and thought of my favorite old saying about unreasonable demands: “Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.”

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If you recognize a few of these mistakes, you’re not alone! We can all be more effective (and have better etiquette) with our email. Have you seen (or made) any email mistakes we haven’t called out? Let us know in the comments so we can be sure not to make them next time!

By Colleen Bordeaux

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