If you find yourself typing any of these expressions into an email message, STOP and re-think it.
1- “I was told…”
This isn’t just about the grammar teacher’s rule to avoid passive voice. “I was told..” is transparent code for “I don’t have this on good authority, but I’m going for it anyway.”
Professionals overwhelmed with email messages see the phrase “I was told…” and immediately think “by whom? Your roommate? Your pet cat? Because if it were a colleague I admired, you would have dropped that name.”
This vague phrase can present logistical difficulties as well: if you were told erroneous information, the recipient of your email will want to correct it by contacting your source. So instead of getting what you want, you might get interrogated about who told you and then that person might hear from your email recipient.
Use active voice. Name the person who put you in touch with the email recipient. If you can’t do that for some reason, then there is no need to mention that you were told anything by anyone.
2- “What should I do?”
Don’t describe a problem and then dump it on the lap of your email recipient. If at all possible you should solve the problem yourself and the email should be an FYI to let the person know there was a problem, but you have already taken care of it. If you would be overstepping to solve it yourself, then you have to present some ideas to solve the problem.
These situations are good to sleep on. Often you are feeling desperate when you type the words “what should I do?” and if you save that draft and get a good night’s sleep, you will be able to replace the desperate plea with some useful suggestions.
3- “Where is your office?”
This rule applies to any inquiry for information that is readily available to the public. It is akin to sending an email asking for Google’s URL: it makes you seem helpless at worst and not very resourceful at best.
These inquiries are particularly annoying when the email recipient would have to look something up in order to answer your email. For example, “when is our April meeting scheduled?” Unlike the location of my own office, I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but whatever I have to do to look that up, you could almost certainly do as well. I have started handling those email inquiries in one of two ways: I don’t answer at all or I answer, “I could look that up for you, but I’m going to let you do that.”
Before sending an email asking others for information, stop and ask yourself “Is there a way I could get this information on my own?” It might not be on the Internet. You might have to call a receptionist or walk by a directory in a lobby of a building, but your resourcefulness will make you stand out!
4- “I urgently need to meet with you about something. Can I come by tomorrow at 4:12 p.m.?”
If you urgently need a meeting and it benefits you and you alone, you absolutely have to schedule it at the other person’s convenience. You have to ask “when would be a convenient time for you?” and then make that time work for you.
It doesn’t hurt to be deferential in these situations: maybe suggest that you understand the person is busy or that you would really appreciate the time it would take to meet with you.
Even if it’s the person’s job to meet with people like you, that is probably only a small part of the job. It is also doubtful that you are the only person served by the professional in question. And in any case, why wouldn’t you want to start the interaction with a pleasant tone? The old saying has never been more true: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
NOTE: when requesting a meeting, be specific about the subject. Busy professionals won’t want to carve out time to talk to you about “something” or answer “a few questions.” If you type, “I need to get your signature on an invoice and want to you check it over first” the person knows what has to be done, how long it will take and can prepare to use the time well.
5- “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How does that work?”
Email is not a good venue for long, detailed explanations.
Often these requests for more information or details on how something works refer to a large aspect of someone’s work: “I understand you manage the sales department for your company. Can you tell me more about that?” That’s asking someone to articulately type out everything they do day-to-day.
A better way to handle this is to first research the information yourself (see #3 above) and then ask specific questions about information that you were not able to find as a result of your exhaustive efforts.
If you do need someone to go into detail, get a phone or face-to-face meeting so they don’t have to type all those words into an email.
NOTE: don’t ask people to do this unless you are sure the information isn’t readily available elsewhere (like on the Internet). Nothing is more annoying that granting someone a meeting only to find that they want an answer to a frequently asked question that’s posted on the company website.