If You Threaten Someone Over Email, You Should Explain Yourself


This week, the White House is dealing with a major crisis, one full of drama, suspense and finger-pointing between two rival parties.

…You thought I was talking about the sequester, right?

The headline that nearly overshadowed the sequester, $85 billion in spending cuts that go into effect today, is the testy e-mail exchange between Bob Woodward, veteran Washington Post journalist (he helped to break Watergate), and Gene Sperling, head of the White House Economic Council.

In a nutshell: Woodward has accused the White House of ‘moving the goal posts’ by asking for more revenue to avoid the sequester. Woodward claims that Sperling told him he would ‘regret‘ saying such things.

Did Sperling threaten Woodward? Is Woodward overreacting at the word ‘regret’? Is the entire episode a big misunderstanding?

What we have here is a failure to communicate…via email. The men could have avoided the entire dust-up if they followed this one rule.

On email, always be specific.

Email, in its most rudimentary definition, is manual labor. It takes time, focus and energy to put words on the screen. When a single message becomes a long thread, we tend to let formalities slide. Capitalization goes away, sentences lose their shape and the conversation degrades into hastily-written phrases.

For the sake of convenience, the strategy works perfectly. Except, of course, when we’re misunderstood a la Woodward and Sperling.

It’s a mistake to assume the other person will read between the lines and figure out what we mean. That’s a big-time gamble, especially when writing to clients, a boss or Woodward, whose investigative work led to the downfall of President Nixon.

Unlike the sequester and our interminable budget crisis (The Onion pretty much nails it here), email communucation has an easy fix: explain yourself whenever necessary.

For instance:

- Before you drop an abbreviation or work-related term on someone unfamiliar, put the full definition in parenthesis.

- If you mention a name or several names that the reader may not know, give a quick description with important information (i.e. their job titles, how you and the reader know these people)

explain yourself
Did Gene Sperling, head of the White House Economic Council, threaten veteran journalist Bob Woodward (pictured) over email? No one is sure. One thing we do know: the two men have a lot to learn about effective online communication.

- Anticipate the reader’s questions. If you mention that you’re making strides on a project, then explain in detail what you’ve done. Otherwise, the person is going to respond with ‘Great. So what have you accomplished thus far’?

- Review emails before you hit ‘send.’ One word that’s can throw someone off. See what I mean?

- Give all relevant dates and times. Otherwise, people get confused about the course of events.

- Lastly, if you threaten someone, explain what the hell you mean.

With stronger email communication, the Woodward-Sperling tiff would have never taken place. That’s a shame, too, because last I checked our country just lost $85 billion.

A war of words should be the least of our problems.


What are some of your biggest pet peeves with email communication?

Share below! 


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© 2013, Danny Rubin


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