You Are What You E-mail

Event: Say It Write: Power Tools for Communicating Effectively
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.14.11
Speakers: Charles Linn, FAIA — Journalist, Editor & Architect; Maxinne Leighton, Assoc. AIA — Principal, Leighton@Large Consulting Group; Jay Rubin — PR Consultant, Writer, Trainer & Speaker
Introduction: Gretchen Bank — Co-chair, AIANY Marketing & Public Relations Committee; Tami Hausman — Chair, Public Relations Subcommittee, AIANY Marketing & Public Relations Committee
Organizer: AIANY Marketing & PR Committee
Sponsors:; Hausman Communications

With the rise of quick, pithy mediums such as blogs, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook, written communication is drastically speeding up. The immediacy and convenience can be great, but only until it leads to an embarrassing slip-up. With e-mail, “I’m sure you’ve all had panicky moments, such as wrong attachments, using the wrong e-mail address, or just e-mailing the wrong person,” said Tami Hausman, chair of the public relations subcommittee of the AIANY Marketing & Public Relations Committee, as she introduced an event about effective written communication. Beyond such technology-related pitfalls, there’s also the age-old problem of busy people writing carelessly: “We’re busy, we’re distracted, and we’re not always focused on what we’re saying or writing,” she said.

Twitter can be especially tricky, due to its tight word count. It might be tempting to try to grab the reader’s attention quickly, but beware of how you do it, cautioned Jay Rubin, a PR consultant, writer, and trainer. Phrases such as “rumor is,” “people are saying,” or “it seems to me” can lead you into the dangerous territory of speculation. Add in a questionable joke, and you might have a recipe for disaster, as in the case of Kenneth Cole’s much-reviled Tweet last month: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

When it’s done well, though, a humorous touch can be a great way to engage your audience. Veteran architectural writer and editor Charles Linn, FAIA, had the audience chuckling as he read a humorous blog post of his about “Architect Barbie” and analyzed it for tips on the principles of good writing. He advised that starting off with a slightly outrageous statement can help pique readers’ interest, as in his post’s beginning, “Those architects who reside on Mars may have missed the most riveting competition to engage the profession this year.” He also recommended techniques such as alliteration (“must love latex and Mahler”), and digging up intriguing obscure facts (among Barbie’s weird professions — she’s been a McDonald’s cashier).

Maxinne Leighton, Assoc. AIA, principal of Leighton@Large Consulting Group, explored how to use e-mail most effectively and avoid its pitfalls. As a medium, e-mail is fluid and fast, but a work e-mail shouldn’t be so informal that correct spelling and punctuation fall by the wayside, she said. It’s best to steer away from too much jargon and abbreviation, too. And above all, beware of hitting the “reply” button in haste in a moment of anger. In a rush of disappointment over losing a commission, a partner she knows once sent out a scorching e-mail blaming the incompetence of a collaborating firm, only to discover that the message accidentally went to a group of recipients outside his own firm. Needless to say, this created a diplomatic firestorm.

Since accidents happen, and work e-mails aren’t private in any case, it’s best to stay on the safe side. “If you don’t want 100,000 people to read your e-mail, don’t send it,” she said. “Take a breath, and remember that whatever you say in an e-mail will not go away. It is there for posterity, so only say what it is you want to be remembered for, and… communicate clearly so that people will respond to you with respect.”