It’s a virtual world. Winning the respect of your co-workers and customers often depends upon your performance within the modern messaging platforms of email and voicemail. If you leave rambling or incoherent voicemail messages or occasionally find yourself in email stalemates with your colleagues, despite excellent your job performance elsewhere, your career trajectory could still suffer. Today, we’ll discuss how modern messaging problems emerge, how those problems impact our colleagues’ impressions of us, and how we can head off those problems before they negatively affect our professional reputations.

How to Email Better
Email is a determinedly casual form of messaging. You try to keep it light and to the point, but your email, on occasion, shows a flair for the dramatic. This must be squashed. .

The Sender Would Like to Recall the Message
In email there’s something exciting and potentially dangerous about knowing that your message will be received instantaneously. If you think about it, before email was invented we never had a message medium where we were allotted as much time as we wished to prepare a response. Then, with just a touch of a button, we could drop our unfettered thoughts on our recipient’s desk. Email eventually became our tool of choice for most communication, especially when we wanted to have our thoughts recorded for potential future reference. Some of us might even admit that we now favor email in situations where we want to avoid personal contact with another. However, email has become a blessing and a curse.

Have you ever been amazed at someone’s tone in their email messages? You know she would rarely be so cavalier on the phone and certainly never so offhanded during a face-to-face meeting. Doesn’t he know that he’s damaging his fragile rapport with the people he depends upon the most? If, as English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” then for some, email must feel mightier than an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. For all its magnificence, email without a compassionate tone, has the power to alienate colleagues and jeopardize future cooperation. It’s a wonder we don’t spend more time training each other on how to avoid such pitfalls.

Things Going Downhill? Pick Up the Phone
At one point or another we’ve all had a colleague forward us an email thread of a dozen or so replies, each more catastrophic in tone than the one before. As you review it, you sense the moment when things went to the dark side. Usually, it’s a rather simple issue, just poorly communicated. Then, one of the correspondents becomes certain that the other is out to get them. And so begins a string of unhelpful, unclear, and/or defensive emails. The emotional fallout, distraction, and loss of productivity affects both the sender and the receiver (and whomever else got cc’d). In most cases, this escalation to personal conflict could have been avoided had either correspondent swallowed hard and just phoned their colleague. It’s amazing how quickly the sound of another person’s voice often diffuses a mounting crisis. The human voice can be disarming because it gives us the opportunity to use our non-verbal cues (laughter, pitch, tempo, uh-huh’s, etc…) to express our sincerity and win back our correspondent’s cooperation. Oftentimes, it’s only after it’s clear that neither party is out to force defeat upon the other that the real issue can be fully engaged and resolved (usually within a series of follow up emails, oddly enough).

eHail You!
The origin of the hand salute used by militaries throughout time is believed to be an expression of friendship. Raising the right hand (frequently the weapon hand) was a sign of respect, showing your passerby that you have no rock (or similar weapon) with which to hit him. Even today, we refer to the opening of our written correspondence as the “salutation.” And yet, in email messages many of us hurry past this 2 second personal acknowledgement and get right to our ever-growing list of demands.

Why not take the time to write a sincere and simple, “Good Morning, Angie” or “Happy Friday, John”? After all, you are emailing because you need something from this person, right? There’s no easier way to cultivate some mutual respect, the cornerstone of all high-functioning personal relationships.

How to Voicemail Better
Are you like so many other voicemail message senders, guilty of phone number spewing? If so, you probably do your best to leave a concise message with polite instructions about how and when to respond. Then comes the punch line: time to leave your call back number. As your phone number is about as challenging for you to recall as your own middle name, you probably blast through the most important part of your entire message at speed of sound.

Slow Numbers Being Jotted!
It’s important to remember that returning voicemail (in most cases) is already about as fuel efficient as an M1 Abrams Tank. To return your voicemail your recipient must access their voicemail box (often with a passcode), sift through other less important messages, transpose your phone number from the sound of your voice to paper (as it’s hard to memorize a 10 digit number) and then retype your number into their phone. Make even one mistake along the way and he’s got to start all over again. If instead, you made a one second pause where each of the dashes normally separate the phone numbers, you would both demonstrate your care for your recipient’s time, as well as your wish to have your call returned.

Want to be a real voicemail hero? Try these tips:

1. Leave your phone number twice – once at the beginning of the message and then again at the end. This gives your listener a chance to confirm what they wrote.

2. Leave a direct dial number, instead of a main line with an extension or routing by receptionist.

3. Try to stick to one phone number that can reach you wherever you are. Most newer phone systems have a “Find Me” feature.

4. Offer one or two time windows to return your call; times when you know you’ll be at your desk.

5. Try to keep it brief; 1 minute, tops. Understanding that some voicemail greetings actually ask for “detailed” messages does not mean that they wish to re-listen to a 3 minute soliloquy a half dozen times to prepare for actual conversation. Anything with that much information should be saved for dialog or written in an email that can be reviewed easily.

6. Correctly pronounce your voicemail recipient’s name with enthusiasm. If they set their voicemail greeting up correctly, they will tell you how they prefer their name pronounced, you just have to listen.

Voicemail Greetings
If your work includes a lot of phone calls, here is a cast of characters with whom you may be familiar. Unless you’re in the small minority of people who need to discourage people from contacting you by phone, these voicemail greetings can damage your colleagues’ opinions of you:

1. Dead Air – Automated Attendant: “After the tone, please leave your message for, —–. “ How are we to guess who might hear this message and when they might hear it? Until our call is actually returned we cannot check this off our list of to-dos.

2. Permanent Vacation – “I’ll be on vacation from April 4th 2002 until….” Forgetting to update voicemail a day or two after one’s return is excusable by most, but getting this outbound message a week or more since a supposed return leaves the sender wondering whether their colleague is still employed there.

3. The Hoarder – “The mailbox for caller 763-555-1212 is full and cannot accept more messages.” Is there a less satisfying moment in business than communicating with a brick wall? By the way, if you have lots of missed calls, but never any voicemail messages, try calling yourself once. You may be The Hoarder.

4. The Protagonist– “I am either on the phone or away from my desk or assisting other patients or saving the rainforests from extinction…” We get it. You’re not there right now, that’s okay. We’re not judging you in absentia for lack of work ethic or moral integrity. Please let us begin leaving our message to you soon.

Want a voicemail greeting that caller’s will appreciate? How about “Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of Tom Thompson at Acme Company, please leave me a message.”?