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How to Make an Impact in 60 Seconds or Fewer. Part Two: Effective E-mail Communication

As you develop your marketing plan for the move from academia to industry, you will, no doubt, keep in mind that one of the keys to a successful transition will be your ability to network. Dozens of articles in Next Wave and elsewhere on the Internet repeat this message. And one of the best ways to optimize your networking communications is to keep them brief. That's what Part One of this two-part series was all about--with the emphasis on making an impact via voice mail, with which you typically have a minute or less to state your points.

E-mail communication is the other tool in your networking arsenal that allows you 60 critical seconds in which to succeed. We all know that e-mail messages are unique because of their brevity and their informal nature. And it's easy to jot off a quickie e-mail note without a lot of thought; you do that all the time with friends and acquaintances. But when you are in the throes of a job search, it is prudent to direct more attention to the e-mail process than you might normally. As I discovered recently, if you don't take time to read over your e-mails--carefully--before hitting "send," you can easily find yourself firing off substandard messages.

A Disastrous Start to a Networking Process

As a recruiter, I network all the time. My phone calls and e-mails, just like yours, are supposed to turn up leads. Although I am not searching for a job for myself, the fact that I am looking for people to fill my clients' open positions makes the process essentially the same. Often, I find that certain people--notably those at a senior level--are more approachable when I send them a short e-mail request before making contact by phone. So I regularly send e-mail networking messages.

A Message Gone Awry

What I intended to ask a senior VP:

"Would you be available later this week for a brief phone conversation? I would like to ask your advice about a search that I am currently conducting in the field of functional genomics."

The way I actually worded it:

"Would you be available later this week for a brief phone conversation? I would like to ask your advice about a position that I am working for in the field of functional genomics."

That's just what I was doing last month when I wrote a senior vice president at a young biotech company. I was hoping to grab a few minutes of this woman's time later in the week to ask her about a search that I was conducting in the field of functional genomics. I was just getting started on the search and knew that a short conversation with someone in her position could form the cornerstone of the entire project. But instead of sending a well-thought-out e-mail, I approached her in the rush of a busy morning. Without proper proofreading, the ambiguous wording killed my message (see blue box), and I came across looking like I couldn't communicate at all.

That's not good! In fact, the one thing that a reader demands of your e-mail correspondence is that the message be clear. Here are some pointers that should help you makes sure your e-mails score hits with their targets.

Ten Tips for Giving an E-mail Impact

  • Proofread, proofread, proofread! Despite the inherent informality of e-mail, your networking contacts are important enough that your messages should be well crafted and reviewed several times for typos and clarity. Be precise and unambiguous.

  • Keep it succinct. I've found that it is almost always possible to say the same thing with fewer words and that doing so improves the impact of the correspondence. There may be certain phrases that you can replace with a single word. For example, "I spent the majority of my time" could be "I spent most of my time." Or, "I gave instruction to the grad students" could be "I instructed the grad students."

  • Choose a good subject line. Your choice of a subject line determines how quickly your message gets read--or how fast it gets dumped into a "holding" mailbox. If your subject line is "Referred by Susan Smith," your message will certainly be read more quickly than if it says "A moment of your time," which sounds a great deal like an advertisement.

  • Make sure your referenced attachments are included. We've all had this happen to us: In a rush after completing an important correspondence, we click the "send" button a moment too soon. Dozens of e-mails per week arrive in our office missing the "attached CV."

  • Be positive, not negative. Generally, a positive expression is more easily understood than a negative one. For example, "You may call me any evening after 6:00 p.m." works better than "I am not available until after 6:00 p.m."

  • Bear in mind that lists read easier and have more impact than long sentences. If you're sending someone an e-mail outlining your lab skills, list them instead of incorporating them into one long sentence or a paragraph. The list will be easier to read and will create a more immediate impact.

  • Keep your Internet jargon in the chat rooms. Although many Web forums are full of Internet shorthand, your professional e-mail messages should be free of "IMHOs" and the like. In addition, abbreviations, acronyms, and jargon from your field can be very confusing and should be avoided except where they make the meaning clearer. (I couldn't find a consensus on "smileys" and the like. I personally wouldn't use them, but another recruiter friend says that they make the sender seem human and friendly. Use your own judgment.)

  • Put your main points up front. Just a few short years ago, when getting e-mail was unusual and fun (ah, those were the days?), we paid close attention to each incoming note. Today, our mailboxes are full of unsolicited advertisements, and we pay much less attention to each piece of e-mail. So, you should make every effort to avoid burying your main points in a pile of superfluous fluff. In particular, the first paragraph of an e-mail message is critically important; one thing you might want to include there is the name of the contact who referred you to your correspondent.

  • Use your e-mail message as the cover letter. If you're sending someone your CV, remember that your e-mail message often will serve as the cover letter, whether or not the "real" cover letter is attached as a file along with the CV. You might send the cover letter and the CV in a single file, but if they are two separate documents, count on the reader opening only one of them--the CV. Also, because your e-mail will often replace a cover letter, remember to use a standard opening and closing, as you would in a paper letter. "Dear Dr. Smith" and "Best regards" do have a place in e-mail correspondence!

  • Avoid HTML e-mail--it confuses the issue. Some applicants like to show off their abilities with HTML and they use this format for their e-mail networking. But these messages load slowly, they don't save properly into the database software, and, in general, they become a nuisance.

The Informality of E-mail

E-mail has made a huge impact on all of our lives. It can also make a great difference to your job search, if you use it correctly--and also if you don't. In the correspondence I described above, for example, I found that the senior VP was never available for my follow-up phone call. While it could be that this person never makes herself available for networking contacts, my chances would have been better if I hadn't winged it with my e-mail.

It is true that e-mail is intrinsically informal--which makes it trickier writing than most. You must deliver a professional communiqué in an atmosphere that is much more conversational than the traditional paper-based medium. But despite the informality, e-mail does not convey emotions well. If you decide to use a more conversational tone, you must remember that there can be none of the vocal inflection, gestures, or visible clues of a personal conversation. Therefore, your reader may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding (we've all been burned by THAT one, I expect).

Either way--conversational or formal--the key is to keep the message short and make certain that it is proofread after each change. I find that reading my messages aloud before I send them works best for me, but I am in a private office and not a lab!

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