I recently heard an excellent description of the correct use of e-mail from a CEO I am growing to appreciate. His idea? Use e-mail to convey facts and not opinions.

  • “The meeting is at 10 AM in Room 128B.”
  • “Attached is the document you requested for XYZ proposal.”
  • “Attached is the project plan for this key initiative.”

Those are all examples of factual information, which is applicable to most of what’s in my inbox. Conversely, if the e-mail includes comments such as “I think, we believe, you should, etc.”, you should pick up the phone instead!

According to a study recently published by the Academy of Management Review, Syracuse professor Kristin Byron undertook a study of people’s perceptions of non-verbal cues in e-mail. What was actually your attempt at firing off e-mails on the run with little thought or intention behind punctuation, phrasing or word choice, often becomes misinterpreted by the recipient(s), invigorating a flurry of confusion, miscommunications, and even worse, mistrust.

Many perceive actual e-mails received as much more negative than ever intended by the sender. Even very positive e-mails are perceived to be neutral, according to the study. Think about the last time you received a short message that didn’t use your name or include a closing. It’s probably because the sender was in a rush, but most of us take it as a negative.

In the same meeting with this CEO, I was also pleasantly surprised to hear a Gen Y-er – famous for their “CUL8TR” (see you later) IM shorthand – adamantly oppose her friend’s use of incorrect capitalization , short texting, and even emoticons.

According to Professor Byron, people’s perceptions of non-verbal cues are consistently inconsistent. Here’s a suggestion: don’t aim for better e-mails. The next time you go down the path of firing off another e-mail, copying the entire country, think about the old saying, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” My favorite advice from this CEO was this: When it comes to e-mail, less is more.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn