The first and last thing to say is that email is a form of writing. Although we increasingly think of email as a conversation, it isn’t. Email lacks gestures, vocal tone (hence the temptation to use bold and italic) and facial expressions (which is why we use emoji – more on them later). Above all, email – unlike conversation – lacks context. So always put context into your email: remind the reader why they’re reading it. A short sentence filling in the background can work wonders.
For the rest, here are my top ten tips.
1. Keep the text focussed and readable
Decide what your message is: the most important point you want to make. Your message should convey a single idea in one simple sentence of no more than about 15 words.
Put the message first, or as near the beginning of the email as you can.
If you need to make multiple points, list them before discussing them so that the reader can see them immediately. You’re not holding a conversation, so what you write must be immediately understandable without the need to ask questions.
2.Write a meaningful subject line
Recipients scan the subject line in order to decide whether to open, forward, file, or trash an email.
Avoid all-purpose subject lines like:
Avoid subject lines that give only a subject:
Instead, use the subject line for a ‘headline’ version of your message.
File 23b: do you need the whole thing?
If you’re creating an email thread, change that subject line each time you add an email to the thread, so that the subject line remains relevant.
3. Avoid attachments if you can
If your recipient needs to view the full file in order to edit or archive it, then of course sending an attachment is appropriate.
If you must attach something, make the file as small as possible, e.g. convert Word documents containing large picture files into pdfs, if you can.
4. Identify yourself early
When contacting someone ‘cold’, always include your name, occupation, and any other important identification information in the first few sentences.
If you’re following up on a face-to-face contact, you might appear timid if you assume your recipient doesn’t remember you; but you can drop casual hints to jog their memory: “I enjoyed talking with you about new project in the lift the other day.”
Always add a signature line that includes your full name and contact details. If you’re in business, include website addresses, Skype number, blog details and any other way of contacting you.
5. Be kind; don’t flame
Don’t shout: no capital letters, underlining or bold.
If you find yourself writing in anger, save a draft and imagine that tomorrow morning someone has taped your email to the office door for all to see. Would your colleagues be shocked by your language or attitude? Or would they be impressed by how you kept your cool and carefully explained your position.
6. Proof read before hitting that ‘Send’ button
If you’re asking someone else to do work for you, take the time to make your email look professional.
If you’re sending an email that will be read by someone higher up on the chain of command – or if you’re about to mass-mail– take an extra minute or two to proofread before you hit “send”. Show a draft to a close associate, to see whether it makes sense.
7. Don’t assume privacy
Emails are as public as picture postcards. They can be (and have been) used as evidence in tribunals and courts of law, and can be easily intercepted by a hacker, a malicious criminal, or the police. In some companies, the email administrator has the authority to read any and all email messages (and may fire you if you write anything inappropriate).
8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations
If in doubt, go formal.
Linguistic shortcuts such as emojis, abbreviations and ‘textspeak’ (nonstandard punctuation and spelling), are generally fine in informal emails – and can be positively helpful – but, if you’re writing in a more formal situation, avoid them.
Think also about the visual design and keep it simple in business situations. No fancy coloured backgrounds or curly fonts!
9. Respond promptly
The speed with which we reply is – perhaps unfortunately – a major factor in our reader’s decision to read our email. If you want to appear professional and courteous, make yourself professionally available. Even if your reply is, “Sorry, I’m too busy to help you now,” at least your correspondent won’t be waiting in vain for your reply.
10. Show respect and restraint
It’s good form to ask the sender before forwarding a personal message. If someone emails you a request, it is perfectly acceptable to forward the request to a person who can help.
Be tolerant of other people’s etiquette blunders. If you think you’ve been insulted, quote the line back to your sender and add a neutral comment such as, “I’m not sure how to interpret this… could you elaborate?”
About Alan Barker
Alan Barker is an experienced trainer, coach and author specialising in communication skills, cognitive skills and creativity. He works at DSC as an Associate Consultant and runs our training on Writing for Impact and Copywriting.