Writing Effective Business Email
Watson, come in here! My in-box is full!
When, on May 24 th, 1844 , Samuel B. Morse sent the first telegraph message, it stated simply “What hath God wrought!” and was a profound moment in the history of human communications. (Rumor has it that during the subsequent celebration, nobody noticed the response, which read “ Stanley ’s Liniment, good for all ailments of the human frame. Free shipping.”)
Fully 160 years later, we have email, which speeds messages, documents, and images at the speed of light to all corners of the Earth (and even space.) Even though it has become ubiquitous in business, many messages are sent without thought as to the impression they’re making on the receiving end. Most of these problems are easy to address with simple procedural changes. Some of the practical suggestions below may help you avoid problems and project a positive image to the recipients of your messages. (continued below)
Don’t forward scam or virus warnings . These are almost always hoaxes, and therefore by forwarding them, you are the virus.
The poor, neglected subject : When writing a subject for your email, remember how they are used. They are in a long list, with dozens if not hundreds of other messages. If you use the subject “Question” you are not giving any clue about the contents. “Please send latest pricing for widgets” is vastly better. The subject has but one job – to get people to open your message.
How will it look when they open it? Lisa Davis of One Alliance Communications has won awards for email writing. She recommends you take a moment to put yourself in others’ shoes. “Looks matter!” says Davis , “Visualize how your email looks to the recipient. Using teeny-tiny type or a font style that is clownish or childlike speaks volumes.” For critical messages, send a message to a coworker to scrutinize – not just on the text, but the overall impression it makes. And don’t forget – many will open your message on a 3-4″ mobile device. Does it work?
Don’t forward offensive content . Obvious? You’d think so… but h alf of U.S. employers have disciplined or terminated employees for sending sexually suggestive or explicit material via the office e-mail system.
Always include previous messages in a reply . You’d never pick up the phone and begin the conversation “Do you agree?” if the last time you spoke was several days back. Bandwidth is cheap, and it’s okay to send the entire message thread. (Related tip: Be careful what you include when you’re forwarding. Private messages often lurk way, way down in the thread.)
Name your attachments with care. Remember they may be saved and searched for later. An attachment named “Proposal from Acme Industries – 072805.pdf” (rather than “proposal.pdf”) would make a huge difference. If you’re using a Macintosh – grumble if you must, but adding an appropriate three-letter extension would be really nice to us poor Windows users.
Think hard before CC’ing or Replying to “All” It used to be true that physical barriers (such as standing in front of a photocopy machine or carbon paper itself) naturally limited this phenomenon. At least we thought about it. But “cc” and “reply all” on emails is too easy.
“ BCC ” when recipients shouldn’t see other recipients. Email privacy is important, and to receive a mailing that exposes everyone else’s address in the “cc” field is a breach of trust. In addition, Customers often “reply to all” …and you surely see the problem. I recently received an email from an industrial client exposing all FOUR HUNDRED of their email contacts to every recipient. Ouch.
Be careful with promotional text. If you find that your messages aren’t being delivered this could be the reason. Even short promotional messages like “Ask about free shipping” can flag Microsoft Outlook to mark the message as junk.
Don’t forward scam or virus warnings . These are almost always hoaxes, and therefore by forwarding them, you are the virus. The industry has ways of warning people about viruses and scams. Leave it to them.
If it doesn’t feel right to send a computer message, then don’t. Every now and then turn off the computer and go visit the person; shake their hand, sit and chat. At least pick up the phone.
Never use email for confidential information . Unless you’ve set up an encryption method, confidential information should not be sent via email. Systems such as PGP 8.0 or Hushmail can allow some measure of confidentiality. Think of email as an unlined envelope – someone really wanting to can read it without you ever knowing.
Never use all capital letters . All caps are the equivalent of screaming and should be avoided unless you are yelling (related tip: Never send email when you’re mad.)
Get your own domain name and email account with that name. This can solve many problems in one action. For example, if your company changes ISPs, you won’t have to print new business cards, and each message you send re-enforces your name brand. You can even be clever, with an address like “email@example.com.”
Don’t send an email at all. If it doesn’t feel right to send a computer message, then don’t. Every now and then turn off the computer and go visit the person; shake their hand, sit and chat. At least pick up the phone. Even perfectly written email it is still cold, without emotion or nuance. It can’t buy you a cup of coffee, or smile and say “thanks for your business – I really appreciate all you’ve done.”
Postscript: TED’s curator, Chris Anderson, today launches the Email Charter — a 10-step plan to make email better. Read more at Email Charter.