Tag Archives: English

bad email cartoon

Writing better email – 4 tips for clearer written communication

bad-email-addressesEmails. Of course they’re useful. But everyone hates them.

It’s largely because everyone gets more emails than they really want. And even they ones they want to or need to read can be hard work. Because it’s really easy to do email badly.

Get the tone wrong, or make it hard to make sense of because of slapdash spelling and syntax, and it’s easy to leave a poor impression on the recipient. And if your email puts them in a bad mood, are they likely to fully absorb what you’re trying to get across?

I’ve been working with a group of executives in London recently on how to write better email, so here are my 4 rules of thumbs for using email in a way that is accessible, clear and most importantly, less of a chore! Ultimately, we all want to write emails that are hard to hate…

1. Keep it brief

Avoid going into detail, or making complex points. Look at it statistically: the less you write, the less potential there is for making errors!

Even if your written English is flawless, this is a good habit to develop: if you ever see senior executives’ emails, they are often a couple of lines, maximum. They’re busy people, so they have to get straight to the point.

Assume the person reading the email is busy too – they’ll appreciate it if you keep it brief.

Perhaps instead of trying to explain complicated issues in several paragraphs, ask if the other person is available for a phone conversation?

As you get better and more confident expressing yourself in speech, try to wean yourself off using email for anything other than short, routine communications.

2. Having said ‘keep it brief’, be careful about ‘bullet-pointing’ your sentences

I’m not saying don’t use bullet points in the structure of an email: just be careful to avoid using bullet-point style when writing full sentences, especially to someone you don’t know well, or someone you have a more formal relationship with, like a new client.

You might use a bullet-point structure like this:

‘I agree with you about scheduling another meeting for Friday. There are a couple of issues that need exploring:

  • benefits of consolidation between SMC and SBA
  • likelihood of meeting targets given the new corporate structure
  • possibility of further restructurings after the merger takes place

If there’s anything else I think we need to discuss, I’ll let you know before the meeting.’

Bullet-points are basically just lists. They’re a form of note-taking. There’s a certain economy people use when writing lists or making notes: leaving out ‘non-essential’ words and using abbreviations. But sometimes people get into the habit of using this bullet-point style phrasing in conventional sentences:

‘Agree re Friday meeting, need to discuss issues inc. pros/cons consolidation SMC/SBA, chance of hitting targets given new structure, possible further restructuring post-merger. Anything to add, will share before meeting’.

Sure, the second version is brief and snappy, but it’s almost ’text-speak’ – it feels impersonal.

If that second version was addressed to you, how would you feel reading it? Like you were being spoken to respectfully, or like you were being snapped at by someone who’s far too busy to let you take up their valuable time?

By all means be brief, but try to write in complete sentences. Think about the tone you strike: email works best in a conversational tone, and in actual spoken conversation, you don’t miss out words, or abbreviate: no-one says ‘inc.’ when they mean ‘including’, or misses out words like ‘i’ and ’the’, saying ‘will monitor situation’ instead of ‘I’ll monitor the situation’.

3. Massage the reader

Getting the right tone in emails is important, especially when you’re asking for something or have a demand that needs to be met, or want to offer criticism or disagree with what has been said.

Most people have an instinctive sense of tone: the difference between an email to a well-known colleague and one to a client is well understood. Occasionally, and especially if English is not your first language, there are phrasings which are a little awkward or abrupt.

The Brits are a sensitive race: ‘being direct’ can often come across as being rude, especially in writing. So if you’re going to ask someone to do something, or stop what they’re doing and pay you some attention – and definitely if you’re going to criticise or contradict them – you need to massage them a little bit!

Try to put your request in terms of whether it’s possible: can they do this rather than will they do it.

And use the conditional tense, ‘could you…?’ or ‘would you be able to…’ rather than ‘can you..?’ or ‘Will you…?’

Would you be able to help me with this?’

is less abrupt than

‘Can you help me with this?’

or

‘Will you help me with this?’

Chasing up

if you’re reminding people about something they’re supposed to have done, always give them the benefit of the doubt; they might not have had time to do it. It’s subtler than asking straight out.

Instead of:

‘Did you do that research for Aviva?’

Try:

  • ‘Did you get my email about that research for Aviva? ’ 
  • ‘Did you get a chance to do that bit of research for Aviva?’
  • Or ‘Is there any news on that research you were doing for Aviva?’

Or use the passive tense. Instead of:

‘Have you finished that report?’

Try:

‘Did that report get done?

‘Has that report been done?’

4. Don’t rely on spellcheck – proofread carefully

Errors like:

‘Were is the meeting?’ (CORRECTION: ‘Where is the meeting?’)

will not get picked up by spellcheck or auto-correct, because the misspelling forms an actual word.

Look out for incorrect verb forms:

‘Have you send it?’

CORRECTION: ‘Have you sent it?’

And plurals:

‘There are other situation where this occurs’

CORRECTION: ‘there are other situations where this occurs’ 

Above all, it’s important to make time to proofread emails, especially ones with more detailed content. Think of it as saving time for the reader: the more unnecessary errors there are, the more time they will have to spend re-reading and making sure they’ve understood what you meant. Subconsciously they’ll be grateful to you for the extra time you’ve invested in writing clearly.

SOME USEFUL PHRASES

OPENING:

I hope you had a good break/holiday/weekend.

I hope all’s well with you.

Sorry for not replying sooner…

Apologies for the delay in replying…

ASKING FOR SOMETHING:

It would be great if you could…

If you get a chance, would you be able to…

SHOWING GRATITUDE

Any thoughts or guidance you could offer on this would be much appreciated.

Many thanks for your time and attention.

I really appreciate your help with this.

SIGNING OFF

Do let me know if you have any concerns or questions

If there’s anything you’d like to discuss, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

I hope you find these ideas useful. Click here to go back to my homepage or ‘Contact Me’ to find out more about how I can help you become a better communicator. Thanks for reading!

Speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

How to speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

No, I haven’t truncated my coaching into a 3-minute express course – of course there’s so much more to it than that. But Prof David Ley from the University of Alberta has some short, snappy, and quite entertaining tips about how to get the right feel for an educated neutral British English accent. I’m not sure if the end result is anything like how 98% of speakers with this accent actually sound, but his process is pretty bang-on!

Politely disregard the hammy rep-theatre versions of Irish, Southern States and Scottish that he does at the end – don’t call us, we’ll call you, professor :)

English-as-a-second-langu-012

Speaking proper: social mobility and ‘accentism’

I mentioned this last week in a post about accents in urban music so I thought I’d repost the full piece. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

New research from Manchester University has found that many people feel unfairly judged because of how they speak, in a manner similar to racism. Some of those surveyed for the research didn’t mind changing their accent in order to get on in the world, whereas others said they felt pressure to speak differently, leading to a sense of leading a sort of double life: speaking ‘properly’ at work and naturally at home.

Suzanne Moore also wrote a very interesting and quite bold piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, about how other research has found that a majority of British people believe a good grasp of English is essentially to being British’. She makes the point that speaking fluent English is not simply about conforming to an idea of being British; it’s more to do with the opportunities – employement, social, cultural – available to you as a migrant if you can speak the language.

I think the same is true of accents. it’s a shame that some respondents in the Manchester survey felt like impostors when they changed their accents: I assume they don’t feel ‘fake’ when they put on a suit and tie for work, even though that’s not what they’d normally wear at home.

Just as dressing to impress can boost your confidence, being confident that you are truly being heard when you speak gives you a sense of freedom and power. It can help you feel more at home in your workplace, or among new people, in new situations.

Yes that’s right, the work I do is about building a better world, my friends. I expect to be knighted for services to social cohesion very soon.

Seriously though, I don’t believe people should lose their accents. Some people say, ‘oh I hate the such-and-such accent, it’s so annoying’, and that’s just rude: my work is absolutely not about pandering to some people’s prejudices. But if your accent is tricky for some to understand, why let it hold you back?

Do give these articles a look, if you have time – here they are again:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/28225710

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/17/learning-english-choice-work-britishness?CMP=twt_gu

grime mcs and djs

Being ‘for real': accents, authenticity and urban music

I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 1xtra for the documentaries (ok, it’s an urban music station and I’m 35 – I don’t usually listen to Radio 1xtra at all). But the other day I stumbled upon a great hour-long program called Speak Britannia, about accents and dialects and how they feature in contemporary UK hip hop music and youth culture.

It was fascinating – especially when discussing the link between accent and authenticity, or being ‘for real’.

There’s nothing more important in hip hop – being true to your roots and the people you grew up around, rather than pretending to be something you’re not.

In terms of how you ‘spit’, or express yourself verbally in your music, that means rapping or singing in your natural accent. Not an issue if you’re from east or south London (“safe, blud”), where grime and other urban music genres first emerged – those accents are the signature vocal sound of UK urban.

But what if being ‘for real’ means spitting in a Scottish, a Bristol or a Yorkshire accent? It turns out there’s a real contradiction in urban music between being authentic and having the right sound for the mainstream.

One section of the program focused on a Scottish MC who was laughed offstage at a contest for rapping in his native accent.

Getting a foot in the door with a Glasgow accent proved so difficult that he went as far as developing an alter ego, an entire fictional persona, who performed in an American accent – and was an instant success. (He later dispensed with the act after losing the will to continue faking it). It seems that urban music, like many cultures, can be deeply conservative about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Grime MCs and DJs are in a uniquely tricky position, where the sound of the vocals isn’t just about clarity but about whether you  are reppin’ the ‘real’ voice of the streets. Think of the radio DJ Tim Westwood, the vicar’s son with the infamous pseudo-rudeboy drawl. It’s a cultural issue, not just a vocal one.

This issue of authenticity comes up a lot with my clients, when I try to describe how accent reduction and speech training fit into a contemporary world where you’re constantly reminded to ‘just  be yourself’.
When I meet clients for the first time, they usually start by saying ‘I quite like my accent’. It feels dishonest to try and suppress their natural sound, because it’s part of who they are and where they’ve come from.
They’re right to feel this way. I don’t teach people how to ‘put on’ a British accent, because how are you meant to be confident and speak from the heart in your professional and personal life if you feel like a fake?
Thankfully, I can’t think of many professions where it’s still considered essential to speak with a flawless English accent (actors in Downton Abbey, perhaps?) The British have generally become more accustomed to different accents from their newsreaders, their doctors and their bank managers. Regrettably some prejudice still exists: I shared an article on social media recently about how ‘accentism’ is still prevalent in Britain. I don’t feel that individuals should be expected to pander to these prejudices, but I think it’s important to remember what I say to most clients: that a good communicator doesn’t make her listeners work too hard to understand her.
I always reassure people that accent reduction is about clarity:  finding a sound that is still ‘you’, but that most people can easily understand. Most English speakers, especially in London and the bigger cities, can cope with different accents, but the easier it is for them, the more likely they are to get what you’re saying, and not be distracted by how you say it.

Then you’ll not only be ‘for real’, you’ll be live-o fam, y’get me?

No, didn’t think so…