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What to say and what not to say in emails

October 2019

How to write more effective work emails? The answer comes from the US designer and illustrator Dani Donovan, who posted various suggestions online, which have now gone viral. They started out as a Twitter conversation, but the designer then translated her advice into a graphic visualisation which she published on Instagram. It’s now been seen all over the world. This shows that it doesn’t take much to convey the same message in a positive tone, and to make communication clear not only between colleagues but also with customers. Let’s take a look at how. 

Dealing with delays - without making excuses-

No matter how organised you are, there’s always a time when you’re running late on a deadline or work meeting. This is why it’s a good idea to start your conversation by thanking the other person for their patience. When a message has been left submerged in a pile of emails, don’t reply by saying ‘SorryThank you’, but with a simple ‘’. Any kind of justification focuses on the negative side: it’s egocentric behaviour because we are thinking about ourselves and our own mistakes. If we recognise the positive values of our recipient, such as patience and understanding, the working relationship will emerge stronger. Although an apology is an act of courtesy and is sometimes considered necessary – particularly by women – an overly submissive, indecisive attitude is counter-productive. 


The art of assertiveness -using the indicative-

Based on her own experience, Dani Donovan tells how indecision and lack of clarity can be perceived as a weakness by co-workers, bosses and customers; being accommodating doesn’t pay (literally). This is why, if you want to be successful in the workplace, the approach has to be assertive: you need to clearly state your position, but obviously without being arrogant. This means you need to avoid using any words that might indicate insecurity. We should avoid messages like ‘I hope what I have written makes sense’ and change the approach by saying instead ‘Let me know if you have any questions’. The conditional form of the verb is also a professional pitfall: instead of writing ‘Perhaps we should do this’, we can reword as ‘This is the best solution’. The present indicative is always our best friend in this situation. 


First of all, get organised

Another problem we often come across in our day-to-day email exchanges is organising a meeting, whether it be face-to-face or remote. This applies both in one-on-one conversations and also in collective emails when the whole team is lined up in the cc field like a football team before the starting whistle. Whenever somebody new joins the conversation, the difficulties involved in organising the meeting increase disproportionately. But if we feel overpowered, we might find ourselves we end up writing vague, ineffective messages like ‘When would you prefer?’ or ‘You choose’. Although at first glance it might seem polite, in actual fact we are slowing down the whole process because we are not giving ourselves an option first. On the other hand, if we act assertively (‘Choose between these two time slots’), at least one of our recipients is likely to accept our proposal. If those dates are incompatible with other commitments, somebody can still make a counter proposal.


The pleasure of helping out

This is probably one of the phrases we write (and say) most often: ‘no problem’. We say it on the phone to our friends when they tell us they’re going to be late that evening, we say it to our parents if they ask us to pop out to the shops when we go to visit, we text it to co-workers when they ask for help. ‘No problem’ has become a kind of mantra that we repeat without even realising it. But the negative side of this term is powerful: we have a negation (‘no’) and a word that in itself is hostile (‘problem’). Although it is true that formally speaking, a double negative equates to an affirmative, it is also true that the overall tone is damaging. Let’s go back to positive phrases such as ‘It’s always a pleasure to help out’ or ‘I’m happy to help’. Or what about the great classic ‘You’re welcome’ and ‘Thank you!’. The conversation will immediately take on a more familiar tone and the relationship will benefit from that.