12 Reasons Your E-Mail Messages Aren’t Getting Across

Messages are too often keyed in at the speed of thoughtlessness causing them to be misunderstood, inappropriate, or unread.

12 Reasons Your E-Mail Messages Aren’t Getting Across

Have you ever gotten emails that made you scratch your head, wrinkle your brow, and wonder, “What were they thinking (if they were thinking) when they hit send”? Perhaps colleagues, clients, vendors, and others who’ve received your emails have wondered the same thing. Messages are too often keyed in at the speed of thoughtlessness causing them to be misunderstood, inappropriate, or unread. If you’re not getting the responses you expect, take a close look at what you’re sending.

With the large volume of emails overloading people’s inboxes, you must capture the reader’s attention within a few seconds. People don’t read; they SCAN, so delivering messages at a glance is critical. Here are the top 12 reasons why your messages may be missing the mark:

  1. A different means of communication may have worked better.

Ask yourself if you should be sending an email at all. Perhaps there’s a more effective way to deliver your message: paper, phone, face to face, text, or telecommunications. 

  • If the message isn’t something you’d write on company letterhead or post on a public bulletin board, don’t email it. Anything you send is a permanent record. We’ve all heard stories about confidential or inappropriate emails getting passed around leading to embarrassment, job loss, or lawsuits.
  • When you play email ping pong (going back and forth more than twice), pick up the phone and call the person. Email is one-way communication and doesn’t substitute for a conversation.
  • If a topic has lots of parameters that may need to be explained, negotiated, or will generate many questions (or confusion), it probably needs two-way communication.
  • Pull out a pen and notepaper as a way to distinguish yourself to thank someone for a job interview, show appreciation for a referral or recommendation, acknowledge people for their business. A handwritten note sends a message in a sincere way that an email never can.
  • When you’re sending a message the recipient may view as critical or negative, deliver the message in person (preferably), on the phone, or via telecommunications. This should be two-way communication, so you give the recipient an opportunity to respond in real-time. However, praise through email (perhaps for a job well done). The reader can review the kudos many times, print them out, and share them with family and friends. 
  1. Subject lines are not informative.

Much like a newspaper headline serves to grab attention and summarize an article, a subject line should serve to summarize the message. Both stand-alone to pull readers in without the benefit of context. Write a descriptive subject line with concrete information that reads like a newspaper headline so your reader can SCAN it and get key information at a glance.

Generic: Sales forecast

Descriptive: Sales forecast: 15% profit expected for Q2


Generic: Meeting date changed

Descriptive: October 12 staff meeting changed to October 13

Generic: Monthly newsletter

Descriptive: Monthly newsletter: See article on the new vacation policy

Hint: Avoid words such as “free,” “X percent off,” “money back,” “exclusive,” or anything with an exclamation point. They scream spam and will land in the recipient’s junk mail.

  1. Failed to change the subject line when replying to a message.

When you reply to someone’s message, always change the subject. Your return message will differ from the one you received and should reflect a descriptive subject line. To maintain continuity in a stream of emails on the same subject, use the keyword in the subject line to add the focus of your message. In the following example, ABC Proposal may have been going back and forth through a long chain of messages. Here’s how you can differentiate your message.

Before: ABC Proposal

After: ABC Proposal: Final copy approved

  1. Used “To:”, “Cc:”, and “Bcc:” incorrectly.

The “To:” field is for direct readers who need to receive information, reply, or take action. The “Cc: field (a holdover from the typewriter days when people sent carbon copies) is for people who need to be part of the conversation, but may not need to take action, although they may choose to. The “Bcc:” field (blind carbon copy) keeps the recipient’s email hidden, so these recipients are a secret to everyone except the sender. They won’t be included in any replies.

  1. Sent Reply to All inappropriately.

This is a highly misused email feature. Don’t hit Reply to All unless every recipient needs to see your reply. A good example may be someone sending out a company-wide email asking if anyone has certain information. You may “Reply to All”, “I have that information and will send it out tomorrow.” That will stop the rest of the recipients from replying to all with “Not me” or “I don’t have it.” Unless there’s a good reason to copy everyone, hit Reply, and respond only to the sender and people who need the response.

  1. Didn’t include a signature block.

Never assume the person receiving your message knows who you are or remembers meeting you. Prepare a signature block that will automatically appear at the bottom of all your emails. This is akin to a business card or letterhead and should include your name, title, company, and contact information. Some people also include a company logo or tagline.

  1. Omitted a salutation or closing.

You wouldn’t start a telephone call or enter a room without saying “hello” or exit without a “goodbye.” Apply the same good manners to email. Start each message with a salutation and end with a closing. They can be less formal than in letters and depend on your relationship with the recipient.

Salutations: Hi Rick, Good morning, Dear Mr. Smith (formal)

Closings: Regards, Thanks, Talk soon, Cheers, Best, Sincerely (formal)

Hint: One line below your closing, type your name as you’d like the recipient to call you. Consider using a script font to replicate the look of a signature. (Examples: Jon, Katie, Mr. Tetrault, Dr. Cooper, etc.) This is in addition to the signature block that has your full professional name.

  1. Messages lacked visual impact. 

Keeping in mind that people SCAN, make sure your message has a strong visual impact allowing key information to jump out at a glance.

  • Create headings and subheads for eye-scannable text.
  • Limit paragraphs to readable chunks which are about 8 lines of text.
  • Double-space between each paragraph.
  • Include bulleted and numbered lists when appropriate.
  • Use upper and lower case, NOT ALL CAPS (unless a few words for emphasis).

Note: Be cautious of including graphs, charts, and tables because they may not transmit the way you prepare them. Consider sending them as an attachment instead.

  1. Didn’t include a call to action.

When you include a call to action in the body of a paragraph, your reader may miss it while scanning. Make this action (and the importance of it) very clear in a heading using italics, bold, or underscore. If the call to action is critical, consider having it start the subject line.

Next step (Next step: I must receive the B&S contract by May 5)

      Action required

      Action requested

  1. Timing was off

Attention spans are at an all-time low; and email counts, at an all-time high. Statistics show that Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are the best days to send important emails. On Mondays, people are recovering from the weekend and getting caught up. On Fridays, they’re daydreaming about the upcoming weekend. Weekends are iffy. (Timing is especially important for marketing campaigns.)

  1. Didn’t focus on the reader 

Notice how many times the words “you” and “your” appear in ads. As humans, we’re a selfish bunch and like to hear and read about ourselves. If the center of your email on you (the sender) or focuses on several readers rather than the one reading it, they’ll fall flat. Create messages that are individualized and reader-focused.

The writer focused: On August 2 we sent you. . .

Reader focused: By now you should have received. . .

Generally focused: So many people are concerned about. . .

Reader focused: If you’re concerned about. . .

  1. Neglected to proofread thoroughly.

Proofreading is to communicate what buffing and polishing are to woodworking. Proofread it a number of levels so you present yourself as believable, competent, and professional. Your emails are as much a part of your image as the way you speak and dress. 

  • Are people’s names and company names spelled correctly?
  • Did you verify facts, numbers, and dates?
  • Are the tone and language appropriate for your reader? (Too formal? Too casual? Too technical? Too many acronyms or industry buzzwords?)
  • Is your message short (not curt) and to the point?
  • Did you include the attachment you mentioned?
  • Are links active?
  • Have you left out any key information?
  • Are spellinggrammar, and punctuation correct?

I received an email from a colleague about a public relations campaign he was initiating. He apparently didn’t proofread because he wrote about his “pubic relations campaign.” (Oops?) Never turn on your computer and turn off your brain as he did.

Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been a training professional for the last 25 years. She’s the author of 25 books, including “New Rules For Today’s Workplace,” “Speaking Your Way to Success,” Business “Writing for Dummies,” and several other Dummies books. She’s been quoted in The New York Times and other publications and has appeared on radio and television networks throughout the United States.