In the modern workplace, communication usually comes by way of e-mail. If you have no idea how to write an effective, professional e-mail, you will be greatly disadvantaged, and worse, you’ll look like an idiot.
Success doesn’t come to those who can’t speak to their colleagues and those in charge. So here’s the ABCs of a topic you can’t afford to take for granted: how to write a good professional e-mail.
Before you Begin
When writing an e-mail, you have to know why it is that you’re even bothering the person on the other end. What is it that you are asking, telling, needing, or wanting from the person? Don’t send an e-mail without a purpose. If you have no reason to reach out to someone, they will just be annoyed. You have to know why you’re opening a line of communication.
Also, be sure you’re reaching out to the person you need to talk to. If you’re unsure, try to do some research first to see if they really can help you.
If you think they can help but you aren’t sure, request that they send you to someone who can. Passing e-mails to those in the know is part and parcel of being part of the professional world, so it isn’t a big deal if your e-mail reaches someone who has to send it over to someone else. If you can, however, try and avoid this; get right to the source.
Of course, things are a bit different when you’re not opening communications, but instead responding to someone’s inquiry.
If someone has made contact with you, they want a response. They have already explained why they’ve reached you. So what exactly is it? Read the e-mail, find out, and figure out how best to reply. It sounds simple, but actually paying attention to why someone has reached out is vitally important for communication.
And please, if you are replying, do not “reply all.” No one wants to read someone’s personal communication that has nothing to do with them. Unless the group needs to know, reply only to the sender!
A proper greeting is essential to start off an e-mail. Unless you’re on intimate terms with the recipient, you should strike for a formal tone: Dear <Prefix> <Last name>. Be careful here: you don’t want to address someone by the wrong prefix (Mr. for a Ms.!) or misspell their names.
If you do know the recipient, or they’ve been informal with you in response, it’s fine to take a more informal, first-name approach, but adding in a “dear” never hurt. It certainly looks better than a plain name, and it doesn’t hurt to be courteous.
After the greeting, it is sometimes wise to include a sentence or two of personal concern and greeting, but sometimes this is inappropriate.
Think of the context. Is this a vitally important matter? Are you not really in a personal relationship but a strict business one? It doesn’t hurt to be nice, but it can confuse matters if you focus too much on kids and family requests. Nevertheless, it can win major points if you do focus on personal points that show you actually know and care about the person you’re e-mailing.
Now get down to business: explain why it is you’re e-mailing this person. This should be written clearly and to the point. Don’t ramble on and on, and certainly don’t be vague. Be direct and informative.
You’ll also want to give the information they need to know in order to be able to answer or act upon what you’ve communicated to them. They should not have to ask you what they need to do for you. In other words, your ask should be clear. It should be obvious to them what they need to do in order to reply and come to a solution.
If the e-mail is long enough, give a brief summary of what you need. Be sure they know how they can reach you, and be sure to THANK THEM for their time and effort.
Gratitude is always important!
Lastly, include your valediction with your name and title.
Brevity is the Soul of Wit and the Professional Email
While you should never write an e-mail that is shorter than it needs to be, it is imperative that it is not longer than it needs to be either. You want to be able to communicate in a succinct way that is respectful of the person’s time and energy, but, nevertheless, is informative enough that all relevant information is given.
Basically, try to be short, sweet, and to the point, but not so short that you’re leaving out crucial details. This is not a dissertation; this is an e-mail. Gigantic e-mails often go unread since no one really cares to read through them. A page should be your absolute maximum length, and even that is pushing it.
Oh, and besides the niceties, which are important, don’t include a bunch of irrelevant stuff.
The subject line exists for a reason: it should tell the reader what the e-mail is about even if they haven’t opened it yet. You have questions? Make sure they know that this e-mail has those, and preferably, what about. Do you have a deadline? Include it!
Example: Three Questions – Need to Know by Monday. Tuesday Meeting: Bring Ideas. Thursday Open House: Be There by 10 am.
Never use ALL CAPS unless you are, in fact, screaming your head off at someone like some lunatic child. That is, after all, what it feels like when you read it. Write like a civilized human being, which ideally you are.
Internet slang, text-speak, and shorthand is a no-no in a professional setting and make sure you aren’t using offensive language. Emojis and ‘ur’ are for your Facebook, not the office. Adults use complete sentences written in impeccable English. Don’t make yourself look out of place, childish, and ill mannered.
Lastly, edit for grammar and spelling, and make sure your e-mail actually reads sensibly. Use a spell checker if you aren’t the best speller, and make sure that when you use words, they actually mean what you think they say. Nothing screams incompetent like someone who uses language that they don’t understand, except for someone whose e-mail doesn’t even make sense because it is all over the place.
Sending the E-Mail
This may sound obvious, but you don’t want to end up forgetting to actually send the e-mail or forget to apply any attachments. Double check to make sure it’s all set to go. Then, be sure to actually send it.
If you have a big file attached, this may mean taking a few minutes to let it send. Otherwise, BCC (blind carbon copy) yourself to make sure it’s actually going through the servers.
E-mails sometimes are lost in transmission, or sent to the wrong folders, but you can cut down on this happening by taking reasonable steps.
Following up with the recipient if you haven’t heard back in a reasonable time frame is completely acceptable provided that “reasonable timeframe” is, in fact, reasonable.
Also, if you really want to get a reply that day, it is wise to make sure the e-mail isn’t sent just before the business hours are concluding.
This goes double for after-hours e-mail. If you do send an e-mail after hours, make sure you note that you aren’t expecting a response that would inconvenience the recipient. Some people do check their work e-mail at home and may feel obliged for a super quick response. It’s rude to expect them to take time for you off the clock.
Professional e-mails aren’t really that complicated, but if you can’t master the skill to send one out, you’re going to go nowhere fast.
The above should give you an idea of how to begin to write your letter, how to format it well, how to keep it short, making sure to have an effective subject and not to make yourself look bad through slang and grammatical mishaps, and finally actually sending the e-mail and timing it so that you get a response when you need it.
When in doubt, follow these steps and all should be well.