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Writing Good Business Emails

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You've seen bad business emails -- emails that contain misspellings and poor grammar, emails that you need to read and reread several times and end up having to guess at what is going on, emails that make you think of the writer as a kid with a box of crayons, emails that drag on and on and leave you wondering what the sender wants...

You don't want your own emails to be tossed onto that heap.  Here is a collection of tips and advice that will help you to write good emails -- emails that will have the effect that you want while avoiding pitfalls that can make you look foolish or sloppy.

There are really only two high-level concepts:

    1) See the email from the viewpoint of its recipient.

    2) Don't be lazy.

We'll get to specifics, but almost everything falls within those two broad areas.

Why Emails Are So Often Bad

A lot of people who are comfortable and eloquent when speaking and even those who "give good phone" simply can't compose a coherent written paragraph.

There is a distinct difference in the two modes of communication.  People are so practiced at talking that all we really do is think aloud; that is, we have the thought and it is automatically converted into spoken words.  Trying to think an email into existence just doesn't work.  Often, the result is that the writer believes he got the message across, but the reader has no clue.
 
Part of the issue is that with face-to-face communication, you get immediate feedback when you are not being understood.   With written words, you can't interactively add more explanation (e.g., in response to the puzzled look of the listener), you must write the original with that listener's context in mind.  Humans evolved communicating face-to-face.  We rely on voice intonation, facial expressions, and body language.

It's easy and natural to write bad emails and you must work to make them good.  How can you do that?

1. See the Email from the Viewpoint of Its Recipient.

Your email is going to the in-box of a busy person.  She sees many, many emails every day.  A lot of them are spam.  Many are poorly written and will take a long time to parse and understand.  Some of them are complaints.  Some are requests that will add to her workload.  Every day, she must plow through a queue of emails because that is a large part of her job.  She wants to do her job well.

Your task is simple in this light:  Don't make her work any harder than necessary.  Don't take a lot of her time.  Help her avoid making mistakes.  All of the following tips fall into the category of:   Make your email easy to handle.
At the Start
Think it through from the recipient's viewpoint.  The first thing she needs to know is:  Who is this person and why is he writing to me?
Write a good Subject line.  The perfect Subject line sets the context so that the recipient is already thinking in the right direction when she starts reading the message.

-- Replies often have an old subject line that is not relevant any more.  It's OK to change it.  Update
   it to reflect what's really going on right now.

  Bad:    Re: Re: Re: Our phone conversation
  Good:  Modified client spec; changed Widget handling

-- In a "cold email," (to someone you have not worked with recently) you must set the context.  Are
    you a vendor,  or a customer,  or a co-worker?  Is this about a certain product, or event,
    or account?   In what category does this email fall?
Use a salutation.  I suggest something like:

      Hi Kim,
or
      Hi Ms Delaney,
or
      Kim --

One reason for the salutation is that it immediately says that your email is not spam ("Hi ksdelany" is a dead giveaway).  And it lets her know that the email has not been misdirected and is not a "reply all" type email -- It is hers to handle personally.  The salutation is also part of setting the tone.  In a face-to-face conversation, you wouldn't just barge into her office and start talking... that would be rude!

Using a title and last name (Mr, Ms, Dr, etc.) sets a tone of respect and I use that on a "cold email."   After that, I look at how the person signs her reply.  If she signs-off with just "Kim" then I know I, too, can be less formal in the future.

Before even getting to the message, the recipient has a clear context:  This is not spam, it's directed to her, she knows you (or doesn't know you), it's about something she normally handles.  So right from the start, you've eliminated dozens of potential pitfalls of confusion and misunderstanding.

The Message
Introduce yourself, briefly.  The subject line and the salutation began setting the context.  But especially if this is your first email to this person, you must immediately and directly identify your relationship with her.  For instance:  

    I am a software developer at XYZ and we have a mutual
    customer, ABC. Corp., who needs...
or
    I am your technical liaison for XYZ.  Tom Smith asked me to...
 or
    As a followup to our telephone conversation about Widgets, Int'l...
Get to the point immediately.  I recommend skipping the "How are you doing?" type chit-chat.  Remember, this is a busy person.  She has other emails to handle, and having to think up witty repartee just increases her workload.  Let her know that she can be brief in her response.

An exception:  If you have met the person socially, or have a history of communication that includes some semi-personal banter, then a pleasantry or two might brighten her day and help with the context ("It was good to see you again at COMDEX." -- Note: Not a question that needs a reply, but a statement to which a reply is optional; remember, she is busy.)
Have a specific reason for writing the email and stick to it.  If you find yourself off on a tangent, then stop dead and delete the paragraph.
Don't try to cover multiple items in one email.  The email in-box is a "to do" list for the recipient and she can "dequeue" the email (move it to storage) only when all action items in that email are done.  If there are two tasks, two requests, two different clients, two different documents,... then send two separate emails. But don't take this too far.  If the items group together naturally and are logically part of a "single task" then send just the one email.

There is satisfaction in finishing something, putting to bed an individual quantum of work.  But there is only frustration in having to leave something pending.  This should be an easy thing to understand: Strive to increase her satisfaction and decrease her frustration.
Use short sentences.  Use blank lines between (always short) paragraphs.  Use subheadings to draw the eye on a change of topic.  Use bullets rather than wordy narrative.

   Changes:
   * Page 4-5 incorporates...
   * Page 7-3 Section on merry-go-round maintenance deleted.

   Tomorrow's meeting
   I suggest that we focus mainly on...

Highlight key information (account numbers, page numbers, etc.) in bold and/or set it off with line breaks.  You don't know if your recipient sees the email in rich text of plain text, so make it work for both.
Try to keep the email to one screenful.  The reason is subtle, but important:  If the recipient can see the end (without scrolling) then she starts off with the attitude of "Here's something I can handle cleanly and quickly."  If it looks like a dense, complicated email, she might jump the queue and leave it for Monday.
Be polite.  Please and Thank you! are, in fact, magic words.  Use them.
Proofread the email twice, top to bottom before clicking Send.  Here is a good chance to delete unnecessary verbiage.  But most importantly:

Read the text as if you were the recipient.  You have been thinking about this problem/situation/document for a long time, but it's new to her.  Did you set the context?  Did you provide enough detail but without edging into information overload?

At the End
Summarize action items and questions.  If there are action items, list them here at the end.  If you need an answer to a question, repeat (the short version of) it here.

This seems to contradict the "be brief" advice, but some emails just must be rather lengthy.  If you had to exceed the one screenful only suggestion, then you must provide some sort summary at the end.  Why?  Because you are doing everything in your power to make it easier for the recipient.

If the recipient is thinking...
   "So what?  What am I supposed to do?"
...then your email has failed.
I like to wrap up with
    Regards,
followed by my signature lines.  "Sincerely," has always seemed insincere to me and I tend to misspell it.  "Your's truly," is not truthful.  I'm not anybody's "Obedient Servant" so that's out.  "Regards," seems to hit just the right note.
Use a clean simple signature at the bottom.  Include your name, company, phone number, and email address.  But that's all.  Don't forget the company name (never force the recipient try to figure it out from your email address).

However, in replies and replies to replies, it's safe and correct to just use an informal short version like:

   -- Dan

Your full contact information is already in the reply history at the end (or should be, see the next item), and the context has been set at that point.
On all replies, retain the text of previous emails that follow your signature line.  It's probably a default setting on your email client, if not, find it and turn it on.   Do not intentionally delete this key "historical" data.   The previous emails are often critical to understanding whatever issue is being discussed.  Do not make your recipient hunt down old emails just to get the context!  If, for whatever reason, you must start a new email without the previous context, then take the time to track down the reply history from a previous email and paste it at the end of this new email.  See #2 (Don't Be Lazy)

2. Don't Be Lazy

Attention to detail is what separates good emails from bad ones.
Be precise and specific.  Never use "...that product" when there is any chance of ambiguity.  Use: "Deluxe Widget, product number SKU123A125"  Don't use "your management tool" but rather, type in the formal name, "your Invoicing and Billing Management Toolkit" (the precise name, found in a previous email or in product literature).

It may take you several seconds to look that up and copy it into your email.  But it will save steps for the recipient, making her job easier and, most importantly, eliminating any chance whatsoever that a mistake could be made.
Save work for your recipient.  For instance, after a series of replies, you might be tempted to say... "please change my account settings to..."  knowing that you provided that account number several days ago (several screens down).  Instead, repeat the account number, (in bold) again.
Write well.  Nothing says "I'm lazy and not too bright" as loudly and clearly as leaving a bunch of misspellings and IM-type abbreviations in your business email.  Spell check and use real words and actual sentences.  Use "you're" not "ur."   Use "That is not a problem" not "np."  You are a grownup now.
Don't use an acronym without introducing it.  Why make her wonder what ICRMS is?  Even if she probably knows, it's just lazy to not spell it out the first time it's used.
Be specific with references.  If you refer back to a previous email, don't use a nebulous term like "last July" -- provide the day, month and year.  Don't make her search around.
Use a good quoting technique to set the context in your replies.  If you have been asked several questions, the lazy way to respond is "See my responses, below" and then insert some text between the questions.

Instead, copy a piece of each question (abridged with ellipses, if necessary).  Paste that into your reply -- set it off with italics and/or a font color -- and then answer the original question, using the default font for your answer (that color means it's your voice speaking).  The original question is in full text in the reply history below; copy just enough of it to set the context.  If the questions are numbered, include the number, but also provide at least a few words to set the context.

This sort of detail will impress your recipient.  It means "Your question is important!  Just look at the effort I'm putting into the answer!"

Before clicking Send on a reply, reread the original email.  You may have focused on just one thing, when there were two items at issue.  If you answer just part of a question, you will look lazy and careless.

3. Other Email Tips and Hints

Here are a few miscellaneous items about using email.
Before answering an email, check your in-box to see if the same person sent you another email soon afterward.  It may be a correction or a retraction, and it will save (both of you) time and confusion if you read both of the emails first.
Humor is probably not going to work, don't try.  It can be misinterpreted.
Never ever talk about body parts or anything that is even marginally taboo in any culture.
The Thanks!-only email is usually not needed.  It just clutters the recipient's in-box.
Request a read receipt only on the first contact.  There are few things more irritating than getting that popup with each incoming email.
Don't omit pronouns.  That's lazy and dangerous.  "Should have read the reply!" can be misinterpreted as "You should have..."; that is, as an accusation rather than an apology.  Disambiguate!
Make sure that your return address is You@YourCompany.com (and not your personal account on yahoo or gmail).
You should consider changing the name part of your email address if:

   --   You always need to spell it letter-by-letter on the phone.
   --   It is princessLeia17@yahoo.com or other cutesy remnant of the past.
   --   If your last name is long and hard (for others) to spell, consider using your first name and an initial.

You have a whole lifetime of emails ahead of you.  Change your email name now.
Consider using BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) rather than CC when sending copies to others.  This is a way to prevent the "To" recipient from seeing email addresses that she does not need to know.  However, if there are several people "in the loop" and if the email involves them (not just the recipient) then it is correct to keep them listed in the visible CC line.
Don't use "Reply All" when you really mean to reply to just the original sender.  You make no friends when you contribute to in-box overload.
Don't be in a hurry to send an important email.  Turn it over in your mind, see what is needed and what is not.  Maybe write it without sending -- let it simmer overnight -- then look at it again before sending it in the morning.

Summary

Most of this seems like simple common sense, but I've seen enough bad emails to know that sense is not all that common.   Take some time to think about the medium.  Identify potential problems with using it and find ways to overcome them.

The take-away items are these:
1) Before sending, reread your email as if you had never heard of you or your company or your product, and
2) Take the time to craft a well-written email that makes life easier for your recipient.

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Author:DanRollins
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4 Comments
 
LVL 38

Expert Comment

by:lherrou
Nice work, got my YES vote. I know some people who will be getting a link to this article in their inbox (all nicely addressed, with just the right tone :) )
0
 
LVL 46

Expert Comment

by:aikimark
Another damned fine article, Dan
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LVL 51

Expert Comment

by:Mark Wills
Especially love this point : "Don't be in a hurry to send an important email."

All to often we see an attitude towards "immediacy" and "convenience" replying to an email without giving it the attention to detail it truly deserves. Take the time to both understand the message and the time to properly digest and respond to that message. Your emails will always attract more attention that way, simply because they are relevant and insightful more so than just being "quick".
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LVL 4

Expert Comment

by:Habeebmast7
Rightly mentioned, most of it is Common Sense.....But people still fail most often.
Good one!
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