4 ways to keep your emails concise and clear

With us all using email more than ever, teachers must consider tone and clarity in communications, says Sarah Davies

Sarah Davies

Teacher communication: How teachers can get the right tone and clarity in their emails

It’s often stated with great authority that 93 per cent of all communication is non-verbal. 

It’s not quite as simple as this, though, because, although 7 per cent of comprehension comes from the words used, 38 per cent of inference is derived from the tone of voice, volume, rate of speech and pitch, while 55 per cent is from from facial expressions, hand gestures, postures and other forms of body language. 

So know you now. It makes sense, too – the way we speak and how we deliver information affects meaning. This is why email can be such a hard medium to use.

You may write your email in a breezy tone but to others it might read in a different way, maybe flippant or condescending.

In school this misunderstanding can easily be corrected in person, but what happens when face-to-face contact is removed? 

Teacher communication: the right tone for emails

The tone of emails can in many ways be judged by their signature. Trawl through yours and you will soon discover that you appear to have a specific sign-off "tell" based on your audience and the subject matter. I certainly do: 

  • Thanks: Used at the end of a general email to a member of the department. Non-judgemental and straight to the point.
  • Thanks in advance: One of those situations where the task you've set is almost expected (whether the recipient likes it or not).
  • Kind regards: Usually to a parent or alternatively senior professional who your aware probably doesn't know your name and to whom you'd be inclined to curtsey to if you were to ever meet.
  • Regards: A less attached signature that could quite easily be saved for those letters or emails that you're writing against your will.
  • Nothing: Straight to the point, almost an air of "no time for chit chat, get the job done". This is the easiest to be misconstrued, depending on the audience and the topic.

In any of these situations, any issues or misunderstanding can normally easily be recitifed with a quick chat, or if a parent doesn't know your tone at first, they will soon get to know it once they meet you a few times.

However, isolation changes this. No matter how well you know a person, once you stop seeing them regularly it can be hard to know exactly what they may mean by a certain turn of phrase or wording of a sentence.

What's more, they may wonder if you're stressed or struggling and this is being reflected in your emails. This would not be surprising. The situation is very strange and unsettling. 

Or, perhaps mid-email you spotted the dog and the baby about to fling themselves down the stairs, or your eldest child building a volcano in the kitchen sink, that meant you lost focus and sent something off that, read back, comes across as blunt, rude or unclear.

Easily done, but now is not the time to let standards slip. In fact, it’s more important than ever that our correspondences are clear and concise.

What’s the solution? 

Firstly, nobody should be over-analysing their correspondence. Your request for a new password or a reminder to staff to update their contact details doesn't have to sound like a Dickensian letter to a new benefactor. 

There are, however, simple tricks that can reduce the chance of annoying or confusing your audience.

1. Proofread your email: How many times is this yelled on a daily basis in schools up and down the country? Why do we think that we are any better? If anything, could our age, experiences and knowledge actually make us more complacent?

2. Think about clarity: Are you getting your point across? If you're asking a question, it shouldn't be a two-page essay. At the same time, if you’re discussing a sensitive matter then two simple sentences aren't really going to cut it.

3. Consider your audience: When all else fails, keep it formal, keep it simple. If you're testing the waters to check Fred's "toilet humour level" then doing it at a time when you can't gauge his facial response or reaction might not be advisable.

4. Time for video? Think about whether a video call would be the more beneficial option if the topic is particularly delicate or complex.

It's a simple set of instructions but if more of us took it on board we could avoid the unnecessary impact and stresses that misinterpretation and miscommunication can have – something none of us needs right now.

Sarah Davies is head of English at E-ACT Royton and Crompton Academy

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Sarah Davies

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