Email etiquette is almost like a rare commodity. Sloppy emails are more common than we’d like. They’re everywhere.
I know professionals with exemplary skills and extensive work experience who still write bad emails — grammar lapses, wrong spelling, misspelled names, shoddy greetings — I could go on forever.
It’s not that we cannot write good emails. Most people do not pay enough attention to their emails. They have been conditioned to place little or no importance to email etiquette.
It works just like all the other habits — you’d want to incorporate email etiquette early on when you’ve just begun writing professional emails. It’s a mindset. You either give a damn or you don’t. You’d rather have your subconscious brain take care of it — start incorporating email etiquette early if you want that to happen.
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In this post, we’ll talk about the quintessential email etiquette rules and tips which will ensure that you write impressive emails.
Email etiquette RULES to help you THINK like a professional
To write effective emails, you first need to have the right mindset. You do not have to treat emails like essays or text messages.
The rules of writing other formats often do not apply to email writing. Knowing a few email etiquette rules will help you get good results from emails. Here you go.
Introspect, WHY are you writing the email?
The biggest mistake most people make: they just start writing without thinking much about why are they contacting that person. Take a moment, and think what is the purpose of the email before you begin writing.
- What do you need from the recipient?
- What does the desired outcome look like?
- How much information should the email contain?
- What would you say if you were meeting the recipient instead?
If you do not have answers to these questions, you will end up writing a sloppy email, or one that fails to communicate very well.
A lot of emails go wrong because the sender is not sure of the actual purpose of the email.
The takeaway is to think for a bit before you hit ‘Compose’.
Is the email even necessary?
Email is not the answer to everything. Knowing when to use another channel is an important email etiquette.
If a topic has many aspects that will need to be explained or discussed; if it would create confusion or generate a lot of questions, do not use email — take it to a personal meeting.
If there is a last minute cancellation of meetings, get-togethers, or interviews, email is not a great idea — tell them in person, or use the phone.
Emails are not the right way to communicate bad news, unsuccessful campaigns, unpleasant numbers — these would need a more analytical approach, take them to business meetings.
One email. One purpose.
Emails are not like business meetings. You cannot discuss five different things in one.
I am writing to see if you were able to get in touch with Adam to see whether he can help us with the project. He’s worked on similar assignments before and having him would help us immensely.
On another note, have you finished making the tech release deck? There are a few things I’d like to discuss.
This is something you should never do. Start a new thread when you have to discuss a new project.
Basically, every time an email requires you to say ‘on another note’ or ‘additionally’, you’d rather move it to another thread.
Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes
Think beyond what you want to achieve by the email. You will have to see the picture through the eyes of your recipient. It is crucial to understand how would they feel when they receive your email.
Go ahead and ask yourself:
- What would you do if this email comes to you?
- What will be your thoughts?
- Would it look reasonable to you?
Do this after every few sentences you write:
- How would you react to the tone of the email?
- How would the same words make you feel?
It is important to remember these things about the recipient:
- They might be busy. You have to be very clear with your words. You have to be direct. A lot of times when people want me to try their product, they go “I’d love to know what you think.” I am not sure what to make out of that. I would mostly end up not acting on it. You’d rather say “I’d love for you give it a try” — keep it clear.
- They love to be thanked. Even if what they did for you was their job, go ahead and thank them.
- They like to be complimented. Start by talking about them. Say good things about them. Making someone happy is always a good idea. Be careful not to sound phony though.
- They get annoyed when you follow up too soon. A lot of us send follow-up emails the very next day because there’s a good chance we’ll forget about it later.
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Keep your life story to yourself
When you’re meeting someone in person, you would not tell them your life’s story — don’t do that in an email.
Keep your introduction to a sentence or two, even when you are writing to someone for the first time.
It was great attending your lecture. I am Harsh, and I handle content at Hiver.
This is just about enough. We are always tempted to write more when we’re applying for a job and there’s referral involved. Most of us have a tendency to overdo it. Well, you’ve got to keep them short, such as:
I am a friend of Jacob Francis, and he encouraged me to forward my resume to you. I and Jacob have worked on several projects together, and he thought you might be able to help me with my job search.
It’s important to stop here and resist the temptation to go on talking about your strengths and capabilities — that will anyway happen during subsequent emails.
Now, in some situations, you might not even need an introduction. You’ve talked to that person before but you are not sure if they remember you. Re-introducing yourself comes across as rude if they already know you. Instead of writing an intro, go ahead and leave your credentials in your email signature.
You can communicate just about anything in 5 sentences
It might sound a bit strange in the beginning, but you can always communicate the crux of anything in just about five sentences.
Popular entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki says:
Less than five sentences is abrupt and rude. More than five sentences waste time.
Guy suggests treating your email as an answer to these five questions:
- Who are you?
- What do you want?
- Why are you asking me?
- Why should I do what you’re asking?
- What is the next step?
Put a limit on the number of characters you can use in an email. When you have to fill your email with superfluous information, it means your request is on shaky ground.
Keep the recipient in mind. Long emails are either unread or deferred for later. Short emails allow the recipient to make a quick decision on what action to take next. It increases the likelihood of you receiving a reply.
Keep your words, sentences, and paragraphs short
Email is not the place to show off your rich vocabulary. By using words that are difficult to understand, all you do is disrespect the recipient.
Make your language easy for the recipient to understand. Never use a long word when a short word would communicate the same thing.
The same rule applies to your sentences and paragraphs. Shorter blocks help communicate the point better. Review what you write and chop off everything that does not add value.
Warning: I am not asking you to use one-liners such as ‘Oh’ or ‘Thanks’. Write a complete sentence. I am also not asking you to use short forms such as ‘Gr8’ or ‘4U’ in business emails.
Keeping things short is okay; text message lingo is not.
Proofread your emails
Many of us do not proofread emails very well; some skip it altogether. We are always in a hurry to press ‘Send’ and get done with it.
Proofreading, in fact, should be an important step in the email writing process and you’ve got to spend time on it. Check for grammatical errors even when you’re sending a two-liner.
Blaise Pascal, the renowned French philosopher, once said:
If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.
See if you can remove words that do not add value. You will need to spend time on making the email shorter.
- Is it clear what you’re asking for?
- How would the same email look to you if you received it?
Send an email only when you have convincing answers to these questions.
Replying fast, but without purpose, is futile
We want to act on that beep no matter where we are, no matter how involved we are in the work we’re doing. Nobody really indulges in deep work anymore.
That notification showing one unread email is the biggest distraction in the present day.
We send quick responses just to satisfy ourselves that we responded quickly. ‘Noted—will get back to you’ just adds to the recipient’s email overload.
Instead of focussing on replying fast, give yourself some time and send out a well thought out email that adds value to the conversation and moves it forward.
Keeping these overarching rules in mind will ensure your emails are crisp and communicate what they were intended to. We’ll now move to tips and must-dos that will help when you begin writing.
Email etiquette TIPS to help you WRITE like a professional
The right use of email will put you in a positive light with your supervisor and peers. I will go to the extent of saying that the way you write emails can decide the course of your career.
In this section, we’ll talk about important basics to keep in mind when you write an email.
Think of the subject line like a newspaper headline
The best subject line is one that gets the job done even before the reader clicks to open. Think of it like a newspaper’s headline. The recipient should know what the email is about just by reading the headline.
A subject line such as ‘Meeting’ does not communicate enough. ‘Meeting at 10 with Product team’ is spot on.
Be precise. If your message requires action, say that in the first word itself. Skip articles, adjectives, and adverbs.
Do not aim to arouse curiosity. Do not say Hi. Use fewer words. Do not be vague. All caps, URLs and exclamation points make your subject line look spammy.
Also, proof your subject line like just as you would proof the rest of the content.
Use a professional salutation
You are not in college anymore. ‘Hey’, ‘Ho’, and ‘Heya’ are not acceptable in a professional setting. What you find friendly might be misinterpreted as being a little too casual.
At the same time, ‘Dear’ is overly formal and makes you look archaic — am sure you don’t want that.
The safest way here is ‘Hi (first name)’. You have to remember not to shorten names unless Christopher asks you to call him Chris, or if he signs off his emails that way.
Useful resource: Business Insider has a great article about email salutations.
Refrain from formatting
When you’re in a professional setting, refrain from any kind of formatting.
Do not embolden words. Do not italicize. Do not use a different color. Do not use a different font. Do not insert images into your email body (add them as attachments; more on that later).
Interestingly, with all the spam filtering going on, the more formatted text or images you have in your email, the higher are the chances of you being blocked for being spammy.
Basically, let the email look as it looks does in the default compose mode. It’s not an art project. Look professional.
Exclamations points are a NO
Do not say “Hi!” to your boss. It makes you look unprofessional. Do not say “Thanks!!!” to your clients. Using a barrage of exclamations is absolutely appalling and makes you come across as an utter immature.
When we use an exclamation point in a business setting, we are asking a punctuation to do a word’s job. It does nothing more than diluting your message and making you look unprofessional.
Useful resource: For the ones who think their writing would look emotionless or stone-hearted if they do not use (!) to convey emotion, here is a great guide to help you start writing differently.
Go easy on attachments
Sending large attachments unannounced is bad email etiquette. Do not clog the receiver’s inbox. They can also cause other incoming emails to bounce.
It’s good email etiquette to ask before you send something heavier than 500KB. Ask them when is a good time to send over the attachment.
If you have more than two attachments upload them to the cloud (can use Dropbox) and send a link instead. It is also good practice to give the attachments a logical name that instantly tells what are they about.
Use Reply All with caution
Most of us have a habit of clicking on Reply All without even thinking twice. I would blame the social networks for convincing us that broadcasting is a legitimate form of communication.
Replying to all is rude. I am not saying you should never do it, but do not do it every time.
Before you click on Reply All, ask yourself if all of those people really need the information your email contains.
If your reply all will get others to do something differently, do it. If you have something valuable to add, or if you disagree with something in that thread, do it.
If you agree, do not Reply All because agreement at work is generally assumed. If it’s just an alright or thanks, quit it.
Useful resource: If you’re looking for more clarity about when to Reply All and when to abstain, a Huffington Post article describes a few scenarios.
Leave a good impression as you sign off
It is common for most of us to be unsure how to sign off. Bye? Best wishes? Best regards?
When you are unable to decide how to end your email, play safe, go with the good old ‘Thanks’ or ‘Best.’ They will never look out of place. They will never go out of fashion.
When you aren’t in the mood to play safe, there’s an entire army of things you can say while signing off.
Excited to work with you
Always a pleasure catching up
Sending you good vibes
You can also go ahead and add a bit of humor here.
May the sales be with you
May the odds be in your favor
How you write emails can shape your entire career. I am not saying email etiquette makes up for a lack of other skills, but it certainly adds more credibility to your persona.
You have to remember the fact that it’s not that people cannot write good emails. Most of them do not pay enough attention.
The good news is that etiquette functions just like any other habit — pay attention to it for a while and your subconscious brain takes control eventually.
Till then, keep incorporating email etiquettes even if that happens forcibly in the beginning.