Writing Professional Emails

We write and send emails more frequently than any other document, but I still receive messages from students, coworkers, and executives with unclear and unprofessional content. While we can and should write emails quickly (particularly when we receive hundreds of them every week), we should make sure our emails politely achieve their practical objectives.

1) Provide a clear subject line. Your subject line should immediately inform your reader about the contents and purposes of your message. Compare these examples: “Security Warning” vs. “Security Warning: Do Not Open Messages from Sender X.” I have occasionally received emails from students and full-time professionals without any subject line at all, and these messages not only require unnecessary time and effort from their readers but also prevent their recipients from easily processing their included information. We expect headlines from newspaper articles for the same reason; these synopses help us decide whether we should read the text and frame its content.

2) Include the expected conventions. Whenever we write emails without salutations (Dear Mr. Rochester), polite closes (sincerely, respectfully, etc.),  and signatures, our messages may feel hurried and impolite. While you can certainly remove these formalities when you correspond with your friends and family, you should always choose the most polite approach when you address your professors, managers, clients, and anyone else who directly impacts your long-term success. This default approach can and should change if your correspondents indicate that they would prefer more familiar conversations.

3) Use short paragraphs. If your email lasts more than 200 words, than you should almost always subdivide your message into paragraphs with different requests, arguments, and information. Emails, like other business documents, should let your coworkers and managers easily scan the included content without reading every word of your message. Even if some of your recipients carefully review the whole email, most of them will briefly skim the message for relevant details and action-items.

4) Format information using bullets. Most emails include one or more of the following: requests, results from primary and secondary research, lists of updates and completed tasks, and future action-items for yourself and your recipients. If you convert these lists into bullets you will 1. help the reader scan your emails more quickly and 2. increase the chance your reader will see information and action-items they need for their work. You might try this format for action-items: James–Please send me the most recent version of the spreadsheets before 6/7 at 3:00. You can even underline or bold names and deadlines unless these textual markers make your email feel less polite.

5) Summarize the purpose of your email within the first two sentences. Write clearly and concisely. Your professional emails should first outline their main objectives and then include further explanation. If you bury your central request, update, or decision inside the body of your message, then your audience may not fully appreciate its significance and urgency or may miss your reason for sending the email altogether.

6) Write courteously and positively. If you ever have bad news for your readers, always preface this information with the reasons why the problem/setback has occurred and end your message with how you will improve the situation. If someone presents you with bad news, show some sympathy. Mistakes happen, and insults and accusations will often keep you from receiving the best possible compromise with the person or organization at fault. Along these lines, you should generally avoid caps-lock, antagonistic language, excessive amounts of bold and underlined text, etc. Remember, you may work with these folks again.

7) Avoid technical jargon and unfamiliar abbreviations. Make your messages clear for your expected and “hidden” readers. Emails often circulate within and around organizations, and your managers, coworkers, and clients may not have the same technical expertise as you and your team. You should also minimize abbreviations and acronyms that others may not understand. One of my relatives told me about an email he once received with the abbreviation PFA. After a few minutes of mostly-unsuccessful guesswork, he finally realized the term stood for “Please Find Attached.” When we automatically use technical terms, acronyms, and abbreviations without specific reasons, we risk confusing our audiences and wasting their already-limited time and patience.

Please comment below with anything I might have missed. Until next time.

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