Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. It depends on the function of the message. If you’re just communicating with colleagues or friends, there’s no need to find new phrasing–though we’ve been told to please keep it to five sentences, thank you.
However, if you’re trying to make a good impression–for example, when you’re trying to start a working relationship with someone–then sounding thoughtful, rather than thoughtless, is a bonus. Remember: Emails are just text and lack the richness of the human voice that you get in a phone call or the wealth of body language and eye contact that you get face to face. All the other person has to go from is your words. So let’s learn to choose them a little more wisely.
If we’re looking to learn how to initiate relationships, we’d do well to go to those who do it for a living–salespeople. And if we’re looking to learn about sales, we should go to the best writer on the topic, Geoffrey James. Who just helped us see which phrases to avoid.
1. “I Hope You Are Well”
“This ‘hope’ is always followed by a page of boilerplate,” James says. “In any case, if you don’t know me, don’t pretend you care about me.”
So how can we do better than pretending to care about someone? Maybe by actually caring, actually getting to know the other person. Speaking to a journalist, PR folks that have just asked me to have a cup of coffee with them have been able to form an actual human bond rather than a forced relatedness. So when they holler at me, I holler back.
2. “I Thought I Would Reach Out”
“That expression–which has suddenly gotten popular–always makes me imagine a baby reaching out of a stroller,” James writes.
And we don’t want to infantilize ourselves. So instead of leaning on this passive, vacuous construction, we can simply say what we mean to say about the topic and how it relates to the recipient. We can dispense with the cloudy and opt for the clear.
To quote E.B. White in the Elements of Style:
[T]he proper correction is likely to be not the replacement of one word or set of words by another but the replacement of a vague generality with a definite statement.
So instead of thinking that you would reach out–which is obvious by your writing the message anyway–just express the action you’re asking the recipient to make. If you want a reply, that is.
3. “Can I Pick Your Brain?”
As entrepreneur-advisor-professor-author Steve Blank has noted, asking if you can pick someone’s brain is asking for someone’s time without offering anything in return.
What to do instead? Blank says to promise sharing an insight you’ve had along the way, which makes the conversation more of a two-way street. And humans love reciprocation.
4. “Bounce An Idea Off You”
See above. (And here.)
5. “Sincerely Yours,”
“I have no idea why anybody would put this phrase in a business email,” James writes. “Hey, the Victorian era ended 100 years ago.”
The old-school standard is that you can’t write sincerely unless you know the recipient personally–if you don’t know them, you should use faithfully, which sounds even weirder (reminiscent of an awesome song by Journey). But like singing ballads at karaoke, you should do so with caution.
[Image: Flickr user Helgi Halldórsson]