Techno buddy: E-mail your way to success

By contrast, e-mail seems like an old-fashioned and clunky way to communicate.

But when it's time for the heavy lifting, nothing beats e-mail. Under some circumstances it's acceptable to use e-mail to apply for a job interview and it's increasingly how we complain about poor service or ask a merchant straighten out a problem.

Since e-mail is one of the oldest uses of the Internet, you'd think that after all this time we'd be good at it. But our mistakes are glaring and often outright dumb. Sometimes consumers start with an insult when writing a merchant to ask for help. And poor grammar and misspellings plague e-mails sent to apply for jobs or admittance to college. Professional communications are sometimes dotted with bad jokes and little smiley faces.

Formal e-mails can be powerful tools. They provide a permanent record of your request. Unlike a telephone call, writing an e-mail gives you the time to plan and refine what you want to say. But, too often, those advantages are squandered.

So let's spend some time today sharpening e-mail skills.

These are common sense rules that will make your e-mail communications more effective.

* Pretend you are writing a letter, not an e-mail

We've become accustomed to using e-mail as a way to talk to our friends in hastily created notes that use fractured sentences, crazy spelling and horrible organization. It's easy for these same flaws to crop up in a formal e-mail. So change your mindset when you sit down at the keyboard.

* Stay in practice

If your e-mails to friends are sloppy, you are developing a habit that can be hard to break. So even in a chatty e-mail, try to use complete sentences and spell words correctly. I don't mean that these e-mails have to sound like a manual for assembling a tractor, but a well-crafted personal e-mail can be warm and even funny. In fact, I'd argue that an e-mail like that is more fun to receive and easier to understand.

* Organize your thoughts

Spend more time thinking and planning than typing. Before you type the first word, have a firm idea of what you want to happen, what the e-mail should accomplish. Once you know what you want, don't beat around the bush in saying it. Start your e-mail by asking for what you want in just a sentence or two -- whether it's a refund, a job interview or a replacement for a defective product.

* Offer specific reasons that support your request

Avoid the general. Instead be specific when making your case. For instance, when applying for a job, don't say your background makes you a great fit for the job. Instead tell an employer looking for a car salesman that you've had the highest sales on the staff on six occasions at three separate dealerships. Or, if you're writing about a product that's defective, explain exactly what is wrong.

* Be polite

I once received an e-mail challenging a statement I made in a column. It came from an executive at a company that sold refill kits for cartridges used in ink jet printers. The note started off this way: "You've been brainwashed by the big printer companies." While it may have been satisfying for the executive to vent his frustration, it set the tone for confrontation instead of conversation. The last thing you want is a fight. Instead you want results. Don't confuse rudeness with toughness.

* Don't throw the dictionary at them

There are times when those faced with composing a formal e-mail get too danged formal. They use fancy words when plain ones would do a better job. Your purpose isn't to show off your vocabulary, it's to communicate clearly. Use short sentences and strong and simple words. Legalistic and convoluted wording are often used to hide a weak case.

* End with a call for action

When I was an advertising copywriter, it was a given that a good ad should end with a call for action. You've told them what you want them to do, you've told them why you want them to do it, now you need to close the sale. So end your e-mail with a sentence or two asking for your desired result. It should be courteous, direct and simple.

Formal e-mails are a tool that, when used correctly, can do the job. But, as is true when wielding a hammer, you can also make one heck of a mess. So spend some time learning how the e-mail tool can firmly drive your points home.

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