I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that email is the lynchpin of modern business. It’s one of our primary modes of communication and, in many roles, is largely what the phrase “excellent written communications skills” is referring to (writing-heavy positions notwithstanding, of course). And there are few things more frustrating—and unprofessional—than exchanging emails with someone who either fails to respond or is sloppy, rude, or off-point.
How you interact digitally will reflect on your overall professional impression. So here are some best practices to follow when emailing—if these are already your habits, great! You’re on the right track. If they’re not, you might consider picking them up so you’re not the notorious “bad emailer” of the office.
The first step in being good at email is actually responding to people. Of course, there are emails that don’t need responses (confirmations of the email you sent someone else, office-wide announcements, etc.), but in general, if someone sends you an email, they expect to hear back from you in a relatively timely manner. I’m not saying you should be chained to your Gmail so you can respond to messages within seconds, but it’s best not to let something languish in your inbox for three days unless it’s completely unavoidable. Even a simple, “Thanks—I will respond to you by tomorrow afternoon,” can work wonders in putting those waiting for a response at ease.
Have a Clear Subject Line.
While the purpose of a subject line for the sender may be to catch the reader’s attention, the purpose for the reader is organization. Imagine if you had five different emails with the subject line “Client Request,” but they were all different requests from different clients—that would be maddening. So when giving your email a subject line, be sure that it’s both brief and specific. Your recipient will thank you.
Tone doesn’t come across as well in emails as it does in person or over the phone. There’s some leniency for when you’re emailing people you regularly correspond with (imagine if you started emailing your work friends in your “professional email voice”—it would be weird), but for the most part it’s in your best interest to err on the side of courtesy rather than being too casual. Use the “Ms./Mrs./Mr. Surname” formula for people you’ve never corresponded with, sign off with something warm-but-neutral like “Best” or “Sincerely,” and try to remember that anything you say (even jokes) will most likely be taken literally.
Include All Relevant Information.
When writing an email, make sure to include all the information that your recipient needs from the get-go. If you’re holding a meeting on project strategy, include the place and time in your email. If you’re asking someone to review your work product, state explicitly what you’d like their opinion on, and include the document. If you need someone to contact a client, be sure to include their contact information. Follow-up questions are natural, of course, but don’t make your recipient chase you down for the specifics.
All that above said, your email should also be as concise as it can be—particularly if you don’t know the person you’re emailing (also called a “cold email”). I can’t tell you how many cold emails I’ve received that start like: “I hope you’re having a nice week. Crazy weather we’re having, huh? I know you’ve very busy, so I’ll get straight to the point.” You know what that opener was? Three full sentences of not getting to the point. I know that the intro is an effort to seem polite, but with the number of emails I get in a day, I’m skimming the niceties to try to find the point. And I know I’m not the only one who does that. Now, check out this opener:
My name is _____. I’m a freelance writer, and I’d like to inquire about writing for the Vault blog. Would you be interested in reviewing an article about how to write an effective email? I would be happy to send it along for your consideration.
A simple, direct email that’s courteous in tone will grab people’s attention more than any “catchy” subject line or one-sided small talk. And while this advice is excellent for cold emails, it also applies to people you work with regularly. Save the chit-chat for the break room—make sure your emails are on point for all recipients.
Follow the Golden Rule.
The number of working adults in this century whose email skills are lacking continuously astounds me. That said, I think we all can use some improvement in this area. As much as someone’s email habits are annoying, inconvenient, or downright rude, you and I are not immune from annoying, inconveniencing, or offending people with our own emails. Really the best email practice is this: Send the email you’d like to receive. It’s the golden (email) rule, and it can go a long way towards demonstrating that you’re an accomplished, respectful written communicator.