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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Basic Email Mistakes That Make You Look Really Unprofessional

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Like most of you, I cannot remember a professional life (much less a personal one) where I didn’t correspond via email. For the most part, it’s an efficient and simple way of communicating, and, when used correctly, it saves time, answers questions, and makes connections. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe I could live without it.

Unfortunately, with the ease of email and the speediness to which many of us are accustomed to sending, forwarding, or replying comes a few road bumps, if you will. I have little tolerance for careless errors like misspelled words (most programs alert you to these types of typos with a squiggly red line), and saying you’re going to CC someone and then forgetting to actually CC him or her. That’s amateur territory. (Although, my mother is forgiven for occasionally sending me messages in all caps.)

Seriously though, because the forum is often the number one way you have of communicating with a client, boss, or networking person, it’s imperative that you get it right. And not just for the sticklers out there, but for yourself—you’d hate for the recipient to miss the point of the message because he or she’s focused on an (avoidable) error. Today a typo loses you a little bit of respect with a co-worker, tomorrow it could very well lose you a job opportunity with a person you meet at a conference.

Ahead, three incredibly basic mistakes you may be making without realizing how very unprofessional they’re making you look to the reader.

1. You Forget to Attach

Career Coach Rajiv Nathan is deeply grateful for the prompts in Outlook and Gmail that let you know you’re about to send a message without an attachment when you explicitly state that you are, in fact, attaching something. Why? Because, before they existed, he regularly committed the egregious error of not attaching—not once, not twice, but three times!

Nathan admits that early on in his career, he had a terrible habit of rushing through work. The result of that led him to frequently send emails saying, “Please see the attached file,” without actually attaching it. Nathan remembers sending the necessary follow-up: “Sorry about that! Here you go!” Unfortunately, it didn’t always end there. “Finally, on the third follow-up (and fourth email total), I attached the damn thing,” recalls Nathan.

“Definitely not a good look,” Nathan acknowledges. In fact, it was such a regular problem that during one of his performance reviews, he was flagged for needing improvement in that area. From that point forward, Nathan taped a strip of paper to the top of his screen that read: “Did you attach the file?”

Be extra diligent about mentioning the “attached” so that the handy prompts (“You said attached? Send anyway?”) appear before your email is sent. Everyone is allowed a slip-up here or there, but make a habit of this careless behavior and you’ll start to get a reputation for being unable to accomplish this basic task.

2. You Go On and On

One of my closest friends is an attorney who bills by the hour. As such, she is accustomed to writing sparingly and not droning on. I could take a lesson from her.

Jenny Foss, Muse Career Coach, stresses the importance of saying what you need to say and no more. She explains, “The inability to say what you need to say—succinctly and with the recipient's time in consideration—can easily annoy someone who may have been willing to hear you out, or even glad to hear you out.”

This is especially true if you’re “sending an email looking for a favor, or input, or support—or even just to touch base or ask a question.” In spite of how useful shooting messages back and forth can be, it’s gotten to be a real drag for some people, and Foss cautions you to “keep in mind that the person at the receiving end very well may find email (in general) the bane of her existence. This person could be up until midnight most nights just trying to excavate herself from a barrage of emails.” That’s why she says you've got to present your ideas neatly or risk looking “unprofessional or downright inconsiderate.” And, along the lines of Nathan’s mishap that resulted in sending several consecutive attachment-less notes, “don't, for heaven's sake, send three emails back-to-back. Get your thoughts together and send one,” Foss concludes.

Getting the hang of saying only what you need to in a straightforward manner may take practice, but it’s worth the effort in the long run. Read through what you write before sending and cut anything unnecessary, such as any words, lines, or even whole paragraphs that are only repeating or regurgitating what you’ve already said. It can be tempting to over-explain, but more often than not, your attempts will just seem repetitive. Learning to write with purpose and a sense of direction will serve you well in your many professional email correspondences. Your reader will thank you for the brevity and will be that much more likely to respond in kind—instead of letting your too-long message sit unread in a competitive inbox.

3. You Spell the Person’s Name Wrong

No, just no. There’s absolutely no excuse for writing to someone and misspelling his or her name. We all have our pet peeves, and this is mine, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Here’s the thing, my name—and the correct spelling of it—is in my signature and in my email address, which is all right there out in the open for the sender to see. I’m so sensitive about this issue that I regularly double-check the spellings of names that typically have more than one option (Kristin, Stephen, Mark, Carrie, and so, so many more) before I press send.

Does it take two extra seconds? Sure. But, obviously, in the grand scheme of things, that’s no time at all. I’d much rather get it right the first time than have to apologize for my careless error. If you’re so busy that you can’t even get the name of the person whom you’re addressing right, then what else are you bound to do hastily? That’s what your reader will be wondering. This small and unarguably simple mistake speaks volumes of your other capabilities. So, double check your work and address the person correctly.

You likely send and receive a lot of emails in any given day. Avoid making small, careless errors that send the message, above all else, that you’re not as professional as you really are. Don’t sacrifice quality in the name of speed, and for Pete's sake (or is it Peter?), don't lose respect points because of an avoidable email mistake.