Ask young professionals about the challenges of the workplace, and I'll bet they say email. I've worked with hundreds of millennials as a communication trainer, and I know they find writing a headache. It’s not that millennials can’t write; they can write academic essays and research papers very well. But they struggle with the peculiar demands of the style I call “American Professional Email,” or APE.
Workplace communicating makes young professionals nervous
They’ve just spent 16 years seeing “adults” as teachers, bosses, coaches, and themselves as “kids.” The relationship was one of deference, and often close to parental. And then one summer day just after they graduate, when they should be sitting around playing “left4dead2” and drinking beer, they have to put on extremely expensive clothing, work all day, every day, and interact with older adults as colleagues for the first time in their lives.
Why "American Professional Email" can be tricky to master
In person, communication can be awkward; but in writing, or A.P.E., it's much worse. After all, most young professionals who work in finance, tax, or engineering didn’t go into those fields because they loved writing. They like spreadsheets and schematics, and they do not like using writing to handle the constant negotiations, requests, and reports that are part of the job. And sometimes emails have to be used to convey bad news, so getting the tone right can be a challenge. One engineer fairly new to the workplace told me that “The worst thing is having to tell someone older and more experienced than you that they are wrong – in an email!” And since most interactions with colleagues, managers, and clients take place through email, their writing skills are on display all day every day.
What happens if you fail to nail email? (Hint: they’re judging you.)
For many these millennials, mastering American Professional Email (APE) takes time and training, but as I assure them, it’s worth it. Communication skill is THE differentiator in professional life, especially when you and your peers have equal technical skills. Poorly written emails annoy readers. And it’s probably unfair, but ineffective emails can cause readers to make conclusions about a writer’s competence.
Here are the three writing problems common to young professionals and how to fix them.
1. Over-politeness. There is such a thing as being too polite, unless you’re talking to your grandma. Because millennials are raised to be courteous, many of them write emails with a painfully excessive politeness which can make the writer look guilty and needy rather than confident. Many struggle to even call colleagues by their first name. (In fact, at one employer I worked with, new hires had to be continually reminded not to add “Miss” to female colleagues' first names.) Many new hires are way too quick to apologize for any request, or show fawning gratitude for any small task done.
The FIX for over-politeness Okay, you’re often the lowest status person on the team. But you’re still a professional, and you don’t need to sound like a supplicant kneeling before the king. It’s great to be polite, but it’s important to tuck manners into the point, not keep the point waiting for all the bowing and sniveling. Learn to express your politeness in short phrases that get the job done fast. For example, “I would really appreciate it if you…” Or “If you have time, can you…?” can be fast ways of showing that you’re thoughtful and efficient.
2. Too many words! Like the over-politeness, wordiness can result from insecurity about how to communicate at work. Lots of words can be like comforting blankets which make us feel safe, but often end up smothering our point. And of course wordiness is also a direct result of having an education. School has made all of us masters at larding our point with extra words, and so much the better if they can be "SAT words." In school, the more words the better; at work messages are expected to be concise and to the point.
THE FIX to wordiness If your sentences tend to average 20 words or more, you are probably too wordy. Look hard at your emails before they go out: Could you cut words, say things more concisely? One tip to find the shortest way to express something? Ask yourself how you would say it in conversation. We tend to speak in a more direct and natural way than we write. Also, ask a friend to find “deadwood” in your sentences – others can see extra words faster than you. And of course, do the same for your friend.
3. Not getting to the point. This email problem is the one that’s most annoying to readers. Readers usually have just two or three questions when they read an email – what do you want me to know? What do you want me to do? And is there a deadline? But young professionals (they are not alone in this of course! ) often bury the lead beneath lots of background (“first this happened, then that happened.”). They make readers do the detective work to find the point. And busy distracted readers do not want to do extra work! We can place part of the blame on school again, because academic writing often builds up to a conclusion. But in American Professional Email (APE), we always put the most important info at the top.
The FIX for not getting to the point. First figure out what the main point of your email is BEFORE you start writing. I promise it takes about 60 seconds to do this. Then try to put that point right at the top – or close to the top - of your email. Make it extremely easy for the reader to see the message and the reader will adore you! (Professionally of course.) If you need to put in some background, see if you can put it in below the key point. You can even give it a headline like “Here’s why I ask,” or “Rationale for Request” if you like to be fancy. The military has a shorthand reminder to help people remember to get to the point pronto: BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). Make it yours too.
So millennials, (and anyone else whose emails need tweaking) you can do it. It’s not hard! And if you need coaching on any of these issues or other communication challenges, give me a holler.