“A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history, with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.”
— Mitch Ratcliffe
How many emails do you write in a typical day? In a typical week? If you’re like most professionals, the number is high enough that it’s inconceivable you won’t at least occasionally commit a blunder.
Just ask your coworkers for their most humiliating email story. Everyone has at least one and will gladly tell it to you.
(My email horror story: I wrote a press release for one of my private sector clients, then distributed it to our entire media list of hundreds of reporters — with Track Changes on.)
Because your professional reputation is built largely on your communications with co-workers, email mistakes can be costly.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to avoid some of the most common email blunders.
Fill out the “To” and “CC” fields last
When writing an email message, make filling in the “To” and “CC” fields your final step. That way, you’ll always have a chance to proofread and edit the message without any chance of accidentally sending it out before it’s ready.
Oddly, most email programs automatically drop the cursor into the ‘To’ field when you open a new message. As a result, we’ve been trained to start by filling out the email addresses of our recipients before we even type the subject line, let alone the actual body of the message. If I were designing email software, I’d set the default so the cursor dropped into the body of the message first.
But until then, my advice is that when you open a new message, your first step should be to get your cursor out of the ‘To’ line, drop it into the message body, and start writing.
Attach your file as soon as you refer to it in your message
If you’re planning to attach a file to an email, don’t wait until you’ve completed drafting your message to grab the file. Attach it as soon as you refer to it in the message you’re writing.
That way, you won’t hit send, realize your mistake, and then have to draft that silly follow-up message: “Oops… this time with the attachment. Haha!”
Place every recipient you refer to in your message in the “To” field
A common email blunder is to include recipients in the “CC” field and then refer to them in the message. We’re all bombarded with email. Often when we open a new message and see that we’re only copied on it, we file away it to read later, or even delete it without reading.
So if you’re going to give a recipient a direct action in your email (“Erin, would you check on that for the group, please?”) or refer to her in any way in the message, make sure you’ve included her in the “To” field so she knows you’re expecting her to read the message.
Be aware of your “Track Changes” in attachments
If you need to attach a document to an email, and you’ve been editing the document using Track Changes, double-check the status of the latest version before attaching it.
If you want to show the final version, without changes or comments showing, make sure your Track Changes feature is turned off and your document is set to show the “Final” version. (Otherwise you’ll experience my email horror story. See above.)
On the other hand, if you are shooting the document back and forth with your email recipient, and you want all the changes showing, double-check your attached version to make sure the current edits are highlighted.
If the document is important enough — or if you are as paranoid as I am — send a test to yourself, with the document attached, to make sure the document opens displaying what you want it to.
Don’t send email in meetings
My general rule for writing anything — especially emails — is not to multitask. When you’re writing an email, focus entirely on that task. It’s too easy to make a mistake otherwise.
So a good rule to follow is never to send email while you’re in a meeting. People are talking. Your attention is fragmented. You’re rushing to compose your message so you don’t get called on before you’ve had a chance to tune back in to the discussion.
This is not the best time to be crafting a work-related document — and remember, email is a work-related document — that will reflect on your professionalism and intelligence.