Writing Hacks: The Adafruit Guide to Being Excellent to Each Other in Emails

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

So what do you do about emails? Especially those endless business emails.

Adafruit is an email company. We send a lot of emails. : )

We do it for scheduling, coordinating meetings, solving problems, meeting notes, and just keeping in touch with each other.

But email can be tricky. So much goes on between people when we talk in person: nonverbal cues, adjustments, a pause here, a grin there. Without all those cues, it’s easy for tone to get away from us.

That’s when “negativity bias” rears its gnarly head. Negativity bias is a tendency for negatives to have a greater effect than positives on our emotional state.

For email this can have radical effects: positive emails seem neutral, neutral emails seem negative, and even slightly negative emails can lead to actual, measurable pain.

Even with the best of intentions we can come off distant — or just plain mean. Which isn’t how it really is, we’ve got a whole lot of nice people here at Adafruit!

So it helps to move email conversations in the other direction. Here are some of the tools we use to be excellent to each other when communicating via email.

Conversational language

  • Like, seriously. We don’t wear suits in the office, no need to put suits on our syntax, amiright?
  • There’s a tendency to think that formality in language will help when we’re trying to make a point — but using friendly, personable language can help win folks over as well.
  • Adopting formal language with certain outside parties (like the IRS or a customs agent) makes sense — but when I’m emailing most people I’m chill with my lingo.

Emoticons : P

  • Emoticons work to convey emotions, says science. So given that companies have been destroyed by flame wars, why not just give in and throw a smiley face every once in awhile?
  • Even old timey business people have to admit that emoticons have use-value. They really do work!  🙂
  • Emoticons give emotional context. They fill that tone void and reduce the impact of negativity bias.
  • Use them here and there to get communicate humor, irony, and good cheer!

Exclamation points!

  • While CAPS MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE BEING YELLED AT, exclamation points can be a little more fun.
  • Like you’ve just got so excited about what you’ve got to say!
  • Careful, though. These! Can! Be! Overused!

Be concise.

  • Three or four lines is almost always enough.
  • Convincing people of something is often about fewer words rather than more words.
  • Bonus: boiling your perspective down to core points can help you refine your ideas!

Space — hit that return bar!

  • Big blocks of text can make us feel as if we’re being talked at rather than talked to or like we’re being railroaded by someone who doesn’t care whether or not we’re listening or if we have anything to say because they just go on and on ticking down their list of things to say all of which are lost in this seemingly aggressive stream of words that just go on and on with no rest no pause and no space for the reader to move around in — and without a break in the action, readers will just skip forward anyhow.
  • Give folks space.
  • Space to listen.
  • Space to think.
  • Space in an email shows you care about the reader…
  • …and encourages a real response.

It’s ok to be funny.

  • When we’re sending emails to each other here in the office, we’re often funny. Funny folks work here. It’s nice. It’s totally ok to be funny. Or in my case, try to be funny.
  • A well-timed self-deprecating remark or (non-mean) joke can help all sorts of medicine go down.
  • Protip: avoid teasing in business emails. Teasing requires a great deal of tone and context to play properly — it can easily lead to misunderstandings. Not the best kind of humor for business emails.

Let the subject line do the heavy lifting

  • Clear subject lines can act like the first sentence of your email.
  • Include keywords for easy searching/scanning if you need the email later!

Include a call to action

  • When a next step is required from the reader, end with a specific call to action!
  • Protip: the call to action can summarize the email.
  • “Without a call to action, how are you gonna get off Tatooine?” — Joseph Campbell

Read it one last time!

  • Go over it one more time before you send it — and then one more time!
  • Especially if it’s going to a whole bunch of people.
  • Your future self will be very happy with your past self if  you’ve made the email concise — that’ll make reading it over easy and fast!

Fast response

  • An excellent way to be excellent to each other is through fast response to emails.
  • Responding quickly is a sign of respect, care, and efficiency!

Further reading:

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1 Comment

  1. Jolly well said, there!

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