You may think of emails as quick to-dos that you can fire off in a matter of two minutes or sometimes, even 30 seconds. But if this is the approach you’re taking to email, you’re likely missing out on a valuable opportunity.
“In today’s fast-paced work environment, it can be easy to type up a quick email and not think twice before clicking send so that you can get on to your next task. However, sending emails that are well-written, thoroughly thought-out, and free from spelling/grammar errors is essential for not only preserving your personal brand, but also for ensuring that the recipient focuses on the content of the message, and not the way it is or is not written,” says Lisa Philyaw, Analytics Coordinator at organization and leadership development consulting firm FMG Leading.
In other words, if you want your emails to be effective, you need to rethink how you’re crafting them. So whether you’re trying to sell a potential client your business services, pitch a reporter, or simply get your manager to review the deck you created, read on to get the scoop on the must-dos (and must-avoids) of email.
Part I: Dos
Do: Use a Clear Subject Line
With emails, the devil’s in the details. If you quickly jot down the first subject line that pops into your head, it's much more likely to get skipped over or deleted.
A few common errors: “Subject lines like ‘Important Document’ look like spam and subject lines like ‘Event Next Weekend’ are far too vague,” says Rikki Ayers, copywriter and content Marketer at Be Rad Media. “A subject line like 'Email campaign draft needed for next weekend’s event' helps me understand what you need. If your email is urgent, add that to your subject line.”
Philyaw agrees. “If you are requesting something, include it in the subject to make it known. If you are following up with specific materials, make that the subject itself. The more specific the subject is to the content of the email, the more likely the person is to open the email with a clear understanding of what’s to come and what’s expected,” she says.
Do: Start With a Greeting
Getting down to business in an email is important, but a little effort spent writing a greeting goes a long way.
“It takes only a couple seconds to type a ‘Hello ____,’ and can make a world of difference regarding how the email comes across to the recipient,” Philyaw says. “Without starting with a greeting, your email may come across cold or demanding, failing to address a recipient’s potential need to connect at a more personal level.”
Do: Be Mindful of Who You Send to
With inboxes so congested already, you want to be very mindful of not looping people into conversations that they don’t need to be in. In particular, “avoid Using ‘Reply-to-All’ unless everyone needs to know,” says business etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer. As anyone who’s been on a never-ending reply-all email chain can tell you, those messages will go straight to the trash anyway.
Beyond that, Schweitzer recommends exercising caution with those who you cc and bcc. “Sometimes people are so proud of their work product that they add a dozen recipients in the ‘cc’ line... this may be interpreted as bragging, a cry for attention, or self-centeredness. Big egos are unattractive,” she says. As for bcc, “ethical questions have arisen regarding this practice. If you need to share an email with someone else, courtesy requires you to seek permission of the original recipient first. When you send your own message secretly to another, it is far safer to paste your message into another ‘FYI’ email, rather than add a person as a ’bcc.’”
Do: Establish a Personal Connection
“20 years ago, you could have gotten away with writing sub-par emails because they were still novel at the time — they would have been opened out of sheer curiosity,” says Christian Chavarro, Growth Marketer at Clutch Prep. But “that's no longer the case — people are slammed with emails daily, forcing them to optimize their time by prioritizing a select few emails, with the rest being ignored or deleted. On top of that, people are spending less time actually reading the emails they open, meaning you're also fighting for a shrinking amount of attention.”
Because of that, it’s necessary to “differentiate yourself… [by] understanding who that target is and what commonality you share rather than shoving a sales-y, ego-centric email in their face,” says Julianna Corso, Sr. Marketing & PR Strategist at Moxe.
One strategy that worked for Corso? “I tried conducting research on who I was targeting first before I even started to write the email. Once I found that piece of gold such as sharing alma maters, watching their speeches, meeting at networking events, or affinities for outside passions like sports, I placed that at the beginning of my message. This creates a humanistic touchpoint rather than a direct sales point,” she says. As a result, “I was able to reach over 90% success rate with coordinating a call based on those emails. I actually got a note back from the CEO of Macy’s saying it was one of the best first impressions someone has ever made via email!” she says.
Do: Use a Strong Call-to-Action
With a limited amount of time in the work day, people don’t want to pick apart an email in order to figure out what the next steps are. As the email sender, your job is to make it as clear to them as possible.
“Assign tasks and deadlines in your emails, whether that’s responding to a memo by this afternoon or following up with a client immediately. A good example could be… Jeremy, please devote some attention to social media this morning and respond to the issues with this message: [insert message]. Thank you for your urgent attention to this matter," Ayers suggests.
And to make sure that somebody doesn’t gloss over your request, Philyaw suggests that you “underline, bold, or find a way to draw attention to requests… for example, start a question with the actual phrase ‘Question for you: ________’ to make it very easy for the recipient to focus in on it and not let it get lost in the email,” she says.
Have multiple asks for somebody? “Number your request so I can number my responses as well,” says business English coach Guy Arthur Canino.
Do: Keep it Short and Sweet
When writing an email, it’s best to skip the flowery language and get right to the point. “A study in 2005 observed that readers spent an average of 15-20 seconds on each email they opened; I'm willing to bet that number has shrunk considerably since then,” Chavarro says.
You’ll want to keep it long enough to address everything it needs to, but “the email should contain as few words as possible,” Canino says. “I don't have time to read a novel. As Shakespeare said, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’”
Do: Double Check Your Attachments
I have yet to meet somebody who’s never had to send a follow-up email after realizing that they forgot to include attachments. Once or twice is understandable, but repeated mistakes will make it look like you aren’t thoughtful in your communications or just don’t care. So when sending out documents, always, always look for the little blue link at the bottom of your email.
However, it’s best to hold off on mentioning the attachment until the end of your email says Barbara Farfan of Anyhows.com. “The minute you reference an attachment, it's likely that everything written in the email after that will not be read. Why? Because of Shiny Squirrel Syndrome. The reader will most likely immediately open, download, print, forward, and give their entire attention to the attachment, completely forgetting that there was anything in the email beyond that,” she says. “Say everything you want to say first, and then at the end say simply, ‘Attached is the document/chart/photo/whatever [you’ve] been talking about."
Do: Respond Respectfully
You know how frustrating it is when someone doesn’t respond to an email that you really need them to, so don’t put any of your colleagues in the same situation.
“Replying within 24 hours is common courtesy. Leaving someone hanging for any longer and you are not only perceived as rude, it could cost you business in the long run,” Schweitzer says. “If you’ve unintentionally kept someone waiting longer than 24 hours or extenuating circumstances arose, politely explain the situation and express your apologies.”
Even if someone turns down your initial request — for example, lets you know they’re not interested after you pitched them on your business services — acknowledging that you received the email and appreciate their taking the time to read it is the right thing to do.
“Be cordial and friendly even if your email doesn't find the result you were looking for. If your recipient took the time to respond to your email, use that as an opportunity to build a relationship instead of burning a bridge,” says Jeff Alexander, co-founder of Interlude Artist Management.
Part II: Don’ts
Don’t: Use a Template
It’s tempting to leverage canned responses when you have to send out a large volume of emails, but be warned: “Most people recognize templates in an instant,” says email evangelist Gisela Hausmann. “Tailoring a template suggests that the sender doesn't care enough about the matter to articulate their own thoughts.”
So for truly important emails, original copy is the way to go. It might not be the most convenient in the short-term, but it’ll spare you in the long run.
Don’t: Use Wishy-Washy Language
Have an opinion? Then don’t be afraid to say it! People often qualify their opinions and recommendations with phrases that downplay their expertise.
“Avoid the phrases, ‘I would say’ and ‘I possibly think’ — and variations of those. They come across like you’re not sure what you’re writing, which makes me wonder why you bothered in the first place,” Ayers says. “Take some time to think through your response before whipping out an email. Often you can remove those extra phrases. You are saying something, so you don’t need to say you would say it.”
Don’t: Rush Your Emails
You may think you can fire off emails in your sleep, but odds are those lightning-fast responses you send out don’t get the best reception.
“Never send an email it’s taken you only seconds to write,” Ayers warns. “Always proofread your emails for spelling errors and to ensure your reader will understand the context. Do all of these things and your internal emails will make you look professional, organized and confident — and that will go a long way.”
Don’t: Get Carried Away With Caps, Punctuation, or Emoticons
WHEN YOU SEE AN EMAIL THAT LOOKS LIKE THIS, DO YOU WANT TO OPEN IT?!?!?!?! Didn’t think so. Extend the Golden Rule to email etiquette and email others how you would like to be emailed — i.e., nothing that looks like you’re being screamed at. Oh, and save the smiley and winking faces that appear far too often in professional emails for closer friends 😉
Don’t: Use an Unprofessional Email Address
Aerosmith4ever@hotmail.com may have seemed like a great idea when you first created it, but let’s face it: if you’re working full-time, you’ve outgrown your middle-school sounding email address.
“We've seen emails from usernames with vague drug references, emails from friend's addresses, and even an email SMS message from a cell phone. If you're asking someone to spend time reading your email, make sure you spend time presenting yourself in a professional way,” Alexander says.
With technology like spell check, autocorrect, and Grammarly, you really have no excuse to send frequent typos in your emails — so leverage them! Otherwise, you risk looking like an amateur.
One thing to look out for in particular is misspelling names, which can really rub people the wrong way. “In a face-to-face setting (job interview, sales meeting, meeting with the department head) anybody who greeted a lady named Brittany with the words, ‘Hi, Bethany’ would be considered impolite or incompetent… Writing in an email ‘Hi, Britany’ is the equivalent of this faux-pas,” Hausmann says. “An easy trick to avoid misspelling names is to copy the recipient's name in a text document, thereby strip it of the formatting, then copy and paste it from there.”
Don’t: Overuse the First Person
It seems innocuous enough, but overusing the first person can be a big turn-off for email recipients. “There is no faster way to say ‘This email is about me and what I want’ than overusing the words ‘I,’ ‘my,’ and ‘me.’ I call such emails me-mails,” Hausmann says.
The fix, though, is simple: “After writing a first draft always edit the email and rephrase by turning ‘I’s into ‘you’s," Hausmann suggests.
Part III: See It In Action
Want to see a concrete example of what these recommendations might look like? Chavarro offered a couple of examples.
Subject line: opinions on this?
I've gotta put a report together and thought you could maybe help me out before tomorrow's meeting. Sorry to bother you with this. I wrote some stuff but I'm not sure what to think of it yet. Thanks for your help.
“The subject line is far too vague to give the reader any context. What is ‘this’? Who are you? The body is in one long paragraph and doesn’t make any tangible request, with ‘help me out’ not giving any concrete specifics as to whether they want feedback, help actually writing it, etc.,” Chavarro says. “There’s also no mention of there being an attachment in the email, which would give readers pause as to whether they should even consider opening the file. Apologizing ahead of time only serves to further push them away from helping the sender. No mention of the sender or recipient’s name is made, which gives the message a cold, unwelcoming feel.”
Subject line: Can I get your feedback on this report?
I'm working on my report for tomorrow's 6 PM meeting and wanted to know if I could get your feedback before I finish it up.
I've attached the current draft to this email, feel free to ask any questions or make suggestions you might have.
Definitely appreciate your help on this!
“This email is good because it’s short, to the point, and its message is broken up into distinct, easily readable chunks of text. The subject line conveys the message so that the reader isn’t left guessing what they’re going to see when they open the email,” Chavarro says.
With all of this info, you have no excuse to keep sending out mediocre, hastily-written emails. So go forth and wow your colleagues with your impeccable communication skills!