Even though all of us send and receive dozens of e-mails each and every day, many are still guilty of breaking e-mail etiquette rules that, if followed, could help us present ourselves more professionally.
Here is a quick list of tips for e-mail communication:
Summarize your e-mail in the subject line
The recipient of your e-mail should be able to tell what the message is about from looking at the subject line when it shows up in their inbox. They can open your email already thinking about your general topic, which will save them the time and frustration that trying to figure out why you were writing would have caused them.
Be clear about why you are writing at the outset
Just as you want a clear subject line for your e-mail, you want a very specific initial statement or paragraph in the first part of your message. This is the part of your e-mail that is most likely to be read, so be sure to say “I am writing to confirm the time for our upcoming meeting” or “I am attaching this document about XYZ for your review. I need it back from you by the end of next week.”
Try to keep each e-mail to one subject
E-mail is a brief form of communication, and our nature is to scan the message. If too many different topics appear in the communication, then the reader is likely to miss one or more of them and not respond to your requests. If you really must include multiple subjects, let the recipient know by saying at the beginning of the email, “I have two quick questions” so that they know to look for two subjects. Then itemize them by noting them as “#1” and “#2.”
Keep it brief
Just as you want to keep the topic of the email to one subject, you also want to keep the message brief overall. Your recipient will thank you if they don’t have to wade through three pages of your mental dribbling, and you are more likely to get the kind of response you need. If your e-mail gets to be more than a paragraph or two (about the length of one screen on the computer), it is likely too long and you may want to consider editing or creating two e-mails. The alternative to this is to create a document and attach it to a short email.
Don’t get too familiar
Think of an e-mail as a letter that you are sending electronically rather than slapping a stamp on and throwing in the mailbox. You always include a salutation on a letter, and an e-mail should be the same. As more and more of us use e-mail for professional exchanges, we must remember to include a “Dear Mr. Smith” or (more informally) “Hi Susan.” Err on the side of formality if you are unsure, especially for professional correspondence. Save “Hey there, Mike” for friends and family. Only omit the salutation altogether if (1) you know the person very well and that is the way you typically format your e-mails to one another, (2) the correspondence has gone back and forth quite a bit and the salutations have been dropped, or (3) the other person drops the salutation first.
When you are upset, don’t press “send”
Avoid venting in your e-mails. First, it’s easier to say things in an exaggerated or overly candid way in an electronic mail (a sort of “electronic passive aggressive” way of communicating.) Second, e-mails can be misconstrued for tone and meaning. Third, e-mails can be forwarded or printed and live forever. (Note: don’t write in all caps. Ever. It’s akin to “shouting” in electronic communication.)
When you very happy, don’t use a smiley-face
You will look a bit too tween-ish if you use acronyms (otherwise known as “initialisms” like “TYYL”) or emoticons (like the semicolon/parentheses smiley-face.) Save those for your teenage nephew or for texting.
Remember, e-mails can live forever
E-mails can be printed or forwarded, so never include anything that you wouldn’t want others knowing. That includes being very sensitive to confidentiality (yours and others’), as well as deciding if you want a written record of whatever you are saying. When in doubt, don’t e-mail if you can call or communicate in person instead. This will eliminate confusion or the possibility of someone later presenting your message as written evidence of what you said.
Proofread, proofread, proofread
Maybe it’s not so important when you are e-mailing your brother in Nebraska, but if you are send professional correspondence, you don’t want typos and mistakes included. Proofread your e-mail just as you would proofread a printed letter.