Many writers would rather communicate by email than phone if given a choice. It’s writing, after all, and email gives you a chance to think about what you’ll say and how you’ll say it.
Plus, you can check email and respond when you’re ready. Who wants an interruption just when you’re getting in the flow?
And even if you’d rather talk on the phone than juggle email, there’s no escaping it.
How are your email skills?
If you look up “email etiquette,” you’ll find plenty of tips. “Don’t email while you’re angry” is a common one. But what if the message pushes your buttons every time you look at it?
“Don’t use emoticons, acronyms, or abbreviations” is another. But what if that’s part of your company’s culture or your readers or customers use them?
In reality, how you write and respond to email depends on the context, the recipient, and the objective. But there’s more to it than that.
Read on to avoid email disasters and misunderstandings.
1. Think about the issue, questions, or request before composing a response.
Be sure you’re answering the sender’s questions or addressing the topic. If it’s unclear, don’t make assumptions. Remember the catch phrase: to assume makes an ass out of you and me. Ass = u + me
If the meaning is fuzzy, ask for clarification or respond with a preface: “If I’ve understood your question, you’re asking —– , is that right? If so, here’s what I think . . . Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood.”
This gives the other person an opportunity to make corrections or affirm that you understood. It saves time and frustration and minimizes the chance of an email disaster.
2. Create a numbered or bulleted list or use a bold font for main facts and specific questions.
Explain by writing something like, “The most important information is listed below.” Or “My questions are in bold with details following each.”
Think of blog post lists and subheadings or bullets you’d use in any document.
Making your email easy to read goes a long way toward getting the response you want.
3. Consider the relationship.
Who are you emailing? If you don’t know someone, formality is usually the rule, at least on first contact. You can always lighten up if the response is more casual.
And no matter how friendly you are with someone who pays you for work—owner, manager, or editor—stick to the formal side rather than casual. The same applies to customers and clients.
That means avoiding profanity, emoticons, abbreviated words, or acronyms. Follow that person’s lead, but don’t go quite as far or break your own rules (if you don’t use acronyms, BTW, no need to start).
Exceptions exist, of course. If you’re a blogger who’s known (or wants to be known) for swearing, then by all means, whoop it up. You might want to skip it, though, when emailing your kid’s teacher or submitting a manuscript for review.
4. Remember: Personality, tone, and attitude are conveyed in email much more accurately than you might think.
You know, I just can’t believe some people actually think you can’t communicate tone or attitude in email. I mean, come on! It’s 2015. You mean you really can’t tell when someone’s being a jerk? Geez. Get with it.
What kind of personality, tone, and attitude is communicated in that paragraph? If you’re thinking unpleasant, mocking, and nasty, you’re right.
I’m sure “hearing” tone in writing is challenging for some. That goes for monitoring your own tone, as well. But if you’re a writer, it seems fair to assume you’re also a skilled reader. And other people are too.
In professional email, don’t tell jokes or use sarcasm that might be misunderstood—that’s definitely a recipe for an email disaster. Would this joke go over any better in person? For everyone? Tone is easily communicated, but you have to make an effort and choose your words carefully. And jokes are too tricky sometimes, even face to face.
In business, maintaining a professional, upbeat attitude and sticking with facts leaves less chance for error. A positive tone is vital. But if you want your “tone” to communicate a meaning different from your words, why not explain exactly what you mean instead? Keep things simple.
5. Don’t forget a greeting (salutation) and a closing (valediction).
A greeting can be as simple as someone’s first name but, on first contact, adding a title—Mr. or Ms.—to the surname (family name) is usually best. Avoid “Mrs.” unless you’re absolutely sure the person prefers to be addressed that way.
As for a salutation, “Dear” as in “Dear Ms. Moretti” has little chance of offending anyone in a formal context (in a query letter, for example). Some believe it’s outdated. I say if in doubt, use it.
“Hi” as in “Hi Mr. Chen” can work too, but on a first contact, stick with standard formality or you might have a mess, like this one. You can always downscale.
An exception is bloggers. I can’t imagine any problogger, no matter how successful, expecting reader emails to start with “Dear Mr. Rowse” or “Dear Ms. Jaksch.” Plus, if you’re emailing a blogger, you should already be familiar with his or her style from email updates, newsletters, and blog posts (check comments, too). “Hi Darren” or “Hi Mary” works just fine.
Closings are important. It’s best to use a standard closing (capitalized, of course) like “Regards” or “Best.” Reserve “Sincerely” for very formal situations. And skip the warm fuzzies or spiritual messages like “Love,” “xoxo,” or “Blessed be” unless you’re sure it’s welcome.
In a rapid-fire email thread, you can skip the closing and the greeting after a few rounds. But in your last email, pop them back in.
Here’s a great list of closings with comments I mostly agree with. Remember, it depends on the situation.
6. If you’re complaining or evaluating something, make a sandwich.
This is popular among anyone who teaches and gives written evaluations, but it’s used in other situations too, such as blog comments.
Start off with a positive, add a few slices of negative, then top it off with a positive.
I like this product overall, especially Part A and the way B works. Unfortunately, C doesn’t work at all because XYZ.
I’d like a refund.
I’ve had good experiences with your other products, and I’d certainly like to be a customer in the future.
Here’s another example. In this case, you’re emailing someone who has done work for you.
Overall, you’ve done a great job. I especially like A, B, and C.
Unfortunately, XYZ doesn’t meet expectations. Please refer to the guidelines.
I’m very happy with the rest of the project and everything you’ve done so far. I’m looking forward to your revision.
Emails like these are far likelier to garner positive responses than long, emotional rants, especially if you make the mistake in tip #7.
7. Avoid accusatory language.
You did this, you did that, you’re wrong, you can’t do that, you have to do it this way, you screwed up, you didn’t write that article the way I wanted it.
Accusing someone directly, even if it’s factually true, creates a battle of you vs. me. It rarely gets good results, especially over time. At best, recipients might roll their eyes, tune it out, and not think too much of you. At worst, it can feel like a slap in the face or even abusive.
Try focusing on the behavior or results instead:
I’d appreciate work being submitted on time.
Unfortunately, this project didn’t turn out according to plan. Could you please re-do the last section?
8. Think in terms of goals and objectives.
The common advice “Don’t email when angry” is only part of the picture. Stress, illness, or chronic pain can make you just as irritable as anything else, including the email you’re responding to.
What if the sender used a long string of accusatory language as above in #7? What if it’s an angry customer hurling virtual daggers? And you see red every time you start typing a response?
If you want to lose a client, a customer, or your job, go right ahead and snap back.
If you’d rather have a positive outcome, write a positive response. How?
Recognize your emotional reaction for what it is—an emotional reaction and that’s all—and let it go. Adopting the motto “Never let them see you sweat” might help.
Now think about problem solving. What’s the best way to handle this? What’s your objective?
Write an upbeat, professional email no matter what you’re feeling. Reread it, and reread it aloud. Delete or reword anything that might sound angry or sarcastic. Don’t lash back or convey an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude. If that’s hard for you or you want more details, read more here and here.
9. Review, edit, and proofread before hitting send.
This is essential. Check facts, and make sure you’ve addressed all questions or concerns. Check tone, readability, and paragraph length if more than one (keep them short). And of, course, check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. And be sure to spell the recipient’s name correctly!
Check length, too. The shorter, the better, but the subject determines length. Just don’t go off on tangents.
10. Follow the “three-way handshake” rule.
A three-way handshake looks like this.
Could you please send me ABC document?
I’ve attached your document.
Have a great weekend,
A great weekend to you as well.
And that’s that.
The expression “three-way handshake” comes from the tech world. When Device One wants to connect with Device Two, Device One sends information called a “handshake.” Device Two handshakes by sending information back, and Device One acknowledges receipt.
It’s a great analogy, and it’s used for email training in some tech companies (I haven’t seen it anywhere else).
Always acknowledge a response to your email. Someone responded to you, and now it’s your turn to say thanks, you got it, or in some way recognize the sender’s effort. This is especially important if the other person exerted a lot of effort.
How you write email always depends on the situation. And the advantage of email over talking on the phone is that you have time to think about what you’re writing. Sure, you can flip off something nasty really fast and create more problems. But if you write carefully and practice, you’ll be an email master instead of a disaster in no time.
Share your email tips or horror stories in the comments!
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