How to write bang-on business emails – that don’t bang on

With most business people receiving dozens, hundreds or even thousands of emails per day, yours had better get the picture over fast and well, or it may get ignored. Here are my key tips on how to do it effectively.

1.Remember email etiquette

Ten or fifteen years ago email etiquette was considered very important, but now that people’s time is so restricted the “rules” have relaxed somewhat. Still, keep the basics in mind. This is business communication, so include the same basic background information you would in a printed letter, which means company name and brief geographical address (you don’t need the floor or suite number!) telephone numbers and website URL. Many people also put their email address but I don’t see the point, as for the recipient to contact you back all they need to do is hit “reply…”

2.Get the salutation right

Not “Dear Ms Doe,” necessarily, as that seems old-fashioned, but something like “Hello Ms Doe” if you don’t know her and “Hello Mary” if you do. If you know the person very well, something like “Hi” or “Greetings” is good, too. Some people start their business emails just with the recipient’s name, e.g. “Suzan,” but I find that rather rude and high-handed, don’t you?

3.Make the subject line relevant

Whole articles and I imagine even books by now have been written about how to write subject lines that grab readers by the throat. However unless your email is cold-selling something (and if it is, are you sure it’s not spam?!) you don’t have to agonize over it for days. What’s important is to make sure your subject line summarizes or encapsulates the gist of your message in as few characters as possible, so the entire thought is visible when your recipient glances through their list. Avoid being abrupt or rude, though.

4.Watch your spelling, punctuation and grammar

A lot is being written these days about typos, poor spelling, punctuation and grammar potentially costing companies serious money in misunderstandings and lost credibility. If you haven’t got a spell checker in your email system write your message as a Word document first, make the corrections, then copy and paste it. Then proofread it anyway. You want to look professional, after all.

5.Leave the introduction to the end

Unlike in some business letters where you often write about the background to a topic in the first paragraph, with email you don’t have that luxury of time. Make your first sentence compelling, and write it as a fuller version of the subject line, summarizing what the email is about and what action is required. Background information can be included later in the email.

6.Keep it all very short and snappy

You’re starting with a very crisp, concise sentence and it’s a very good idea to stick with that style all the way through. Leave out all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Use action nouns and verbs. Strip your writing of all flowery language, jargon or other padding. Here’s an example of how to strip a short paragraph:

Version One: The object in question is made of light wood and contains a cylindrical core of carbon. It is necessary to sharpen the wood at one end of this instrument in order to create a conical point. In this respect it is possible to hold the object in the hand, and through the application of the correct amount of pressure the carbon point will convey an image upon a piece paper placed appropriately beneath it. At this moment in time it is not possible for me to demonstrate the action of this object as it would appear to have been temporarily mislaid.

Version Two: I’m talking about a pencil. It’s made of wood, with some carbon in it. If you sharpen one end you can write with it. I can’t show you how it works now because I’ve lost it.

7.Stick to one topic per message

People these days tend only to absorb what you say in the first few sentences of your email unless you really have grabbed them by the short hairs. Including two or more topics in your email is asking for number two to get bypassed because time and attention spans are very short. If you have more than one topic to discuss, ideally send individual emails, or say “3 things we need to decide about today” in the subject line followed immediately by a first line saying something like “Because of the board meeting tomorrow, we need to make final decisions on (topic A), (topic B) and (topic C) by close of play today. Here’s how those are looking now…”

8.Don’t lose your rag – ever

Never send and preferably don’t even try to write an email if you’re angry, upset, drunk, or otherwise not in total control. If you have a heated conversation with someone on the telephone you can sometimes fudge things over. But with emails, once you hit “send” whatever you’ve written is there, carved in tablets of stone, for as long as the recipient wants to glare at it. Conflict like this rarely is helpful in business…

9.Make it (visually) easy to read

Don’t cramp all the text together in tight single spacing – leave a bit of air and white space so it doesn’t look cluttered.  Cluttered text is uninviting to read and tends to turn off readers’ attention. Well spaced text with no more than two sentences per paragraph work best online.

10.Get the signoff right

Not with “Yours sincerely/truly/faithfully” which is a hangover from printed letter days and looks cheesy and old-fashioned, but something less formal like “best wishes,” “kind regards,” “all the best,” etc. “Warm regards” is a popular signoff at the moment but that doesn’t do it for me – it seems a bit wishy-washy and rather phony, but that’s just a personal view!

11.Don’t overdo the sig file

Some people send business emails with signature files of up to 10 lines of drivel including several links, product mentions, straplines etc. That just looks silly and will be ignored by readers. Keep your sig file short and don’t include more than one link. It’s much more powerful.

12.Leave the attachments out

Unless the recipient of your email knows you very well and/or is expecting an attached document from you, don’t attach anything without clearing it with them first. Virus checkers, firewalls and all that are pretty efficient these days but so are the spammers and cloners. Don’t take a chance that the recipient won’t trust your attachment and so will delete your message.

Make sure all your writing is bang-on:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write
“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

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Thoughts

  1. I have seen some email sigs that are bigger than the entire email! Everyone likes to cram everything in an email – legal disclaimers, “don’t print and save a tree” and my person fave – this email is intended for jo bloggs and if that’ not you you are forbidden to share or distribute it… I am so tempted to hit forward on that…

    • LOL @ Sarah … so true! Usually those “forbidden to read…etc.” sigs are from pompous public sector departments who still haven’t realized that the internet does not sit up and behave itself when Nanny says so…ah well.

  2. Time is of the essence nowadays – people just don’t want to read loooooooong emails (me included). So I try as much as possible to stick to a rule I read on twitter – keep your email to five sentences or less http://five.sentenc.es/

    Of course sometimes we need to do a longer “information” email, especially for internal stuff, but to customers and those we are approaching for help or action, I believe the five sentence rule (plus this excellent post) will keep all focused. And not wasting time.

    Or feeling like they’re waiting time – and that’s important.

    • I think you’re probably right, Pedro, although it says a lot for today’s “information overload” that we can’t expect people to concentrate on one topic for more than five sentences! With carefully edited writing, however, you can get a lot of information over in five sentences, and they don’t even need to be that long. Thanks for your input!

  3. I’d support all of those points; however I think some people overdo it on the short and snappy sometimes, to the point of just having a single statement.

    I like to try and go for three brief paragraphs: firstly a set-up statement of why I’m contacting them; secondly some supporting information; and finally a close with a clear call to action if required.

    • Thanks for that, Mike. I think a lot depends on the purpose of the email; that surely will determine how you catch your reader’s attention in the first place, and then how you structure the email from then on. Your three paragraph structure will, of course, work well in a number of instances, but not all. As usual, it’s a case of “horses for courses.”

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