In the course of a week’s work you probably write and receive scores of emails. It is likely that you put less thought into writing an email than you would if you were writing a traditional business or work-based letter. After all, email is the quick and easy way to communicate, you don’t need to be too formal or think about the wording too much, and somehow the message always gets across. Right?
Not exactly, not always. Email etiquette is a comparatively new and evolving concept, and it is worth paying some attention to it if you want to send effective emails which communicate their message clearly and appropriately. OK, so being known for doing good email isn’t the sexiest of reputations, but it beats annoying the hell out of people who are overwhelmed by their inbox and will not relish another rambling, unclear, awkwardly phrased missive.
We’re talking here about formal and semi-formal messages, ones you exchange with work colleagues and associates, some of whom you may never have met.
1 Be clear in your own mind about the point of your message. What is the purpose of this communication? Is it to:
- make an arrangement
- alter an arrangement
- provide information
- propose an idea
Identify the key word before you start writing
2 Put the key message in the subject line.
If your message is short, you can put it all in the subject line. Finish with EOM (end of message).
Think about emails announcing, say, a change of meeting venue. You will have received loads of these, and so will the even busier people in your circle. The email may have the subject line ‘Meeting’. They think,what meeting is this about? I have to attend scores of meetings. Will this email be suggesting a meeting, or referring to something that happened in a previous meeting? Who knows? You and they might have to plough through a lot of words to find out.
If the word ‘change’ or ‘altered’ appears in the subject line you are getting closer, but why not go the whole hog and and say something like ‘Meeting with Jude Law (insert date and time ) will now be held in the Rainbow Room. EOM’
Now that’s neat. You will make lots of friends.
3 Specify in the subject line what action is required.
It’s helpful if people can see straight away how they are expected to respond.
FYI indicates ‘For Your Information’ and that no action or response is required. You could make this even clearer by adding ‘No Action Needed’.
If action is required, mark it ‘Urgent’ or ‘Non-Urgent’. There’s no need to mark everything urgent because you worry that your request will be overlooked. There’s an old story, dear younger readers, involving a boy and a wolf. Look it up.
4 Make one main point per email.
As you may have discovered, people don’t take in everything they read in an email. They are likely to focus on the first few sentences and skim the rest. If you have several things to say, consider sending a separate email for each point, each with its own subject line.
This is very helpful for your recipients, who can sort each email according to their own system, and can see clearly what action is required for the separate topics.
5 If you are making more than one point, put each in a separate paragraph, as you would in a traditional business letter.
You might think about numbering the paragraphs to make each point stand out.
6 Don’t mix the professional and the personal. Depending on the context, an opening line such as ‘It was good to see you at the reception’ is fine. References to a wild night’s revelry perhaps not so fine. It is best not to say anything that distracts from or dilutes the main point of this contact – especially if the topic is weighty or serious. Attached photos of your cute baby or pet don’t make anything better. Injecting a personal note at the end of a heavy work email – ‘BTW, loving your red sandals’ – may actually a bit rattling for the recipient.
7 Don’t copy in everyone.
It’s a lazy habit and annoys people.
8 Imagine that you are the person who will be receiving this email.
Read it over. Do you have all the information you need? Is your next step perfectly clear?
If what you have written would require the recipient to get back in touch for clarification, re-write.
9 Check that you have not written anything that you would not want to be filed, forwarded or otherwise stored and shared.
Once it’s sent, it’s out there.
10 Pause before you press send.
If the subject matter is at all tricky or controversial, leave it for an appropriate length of time then check that what you have written comes across in the way you intended.