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How to Write Clear and Professional Emails

by
This post is part of a series called Writing Effective Business Emails.
The Downton Abbey Guide to Email Etiquette
How to Write Emails That People Read and Take Action On

Email is the communication tool of choice for most of us. Email's great because you don't have to be available at the same time as your conversation partner to communicate. It allows us to keep projects moving when our co-workers are unavailable or on the other side of the world.

There's one problem: most of us are drowning in emails. The average person using email for business receives and sends over 100 emails a day, according to a report published by the Radicati Group.

On top of that, emails are all too easily misunderstood. A recent study by Sendmail found that 64% of people have sent or received an email that caused unintended anger or confusion.

Because of the volume of emails we send and receive, and because emails are often misinterpreted, it's important to write emails clearly and concisely.

Writing emails that are short and to-the-point will reduce the time you spend on email and make you more productive. By keeping your emails short, you'll likely spend less time on email and more time on other work. That said, writing clearly is a skill. Like all skills, you'll have to work at it. To begin with, it may take you just as long to write short emails as it took you to write long emails. However, even if this is the case, you'll help your co-workers, clients, or employees be more productive because you'll be adding less clutter to their inboxes, making it easier for them to respond to you.

By writing clearly, you'll become known as someone who knows what he or she wants and who gets things done. Both of these are good for your career prospects.

So what does it take to write clear, concise, and professional emails?

Know Your Purpose

Clear emails always have a clear purpose.

Whenever you sit down to write an email, take a few seconds to ask yourself: "Why am I sending this? What do I need from the recipient?"

If you can't answer these questions, then you shouldn't be sending an email. Writing emails without knowing what you need wastes your time and the recipient's time and means you'll struggle to express yourself clearly and concisely.

This is also a good time to ask yourself: "Is this email really necessary?" Again, only sending emails that are absolutely necessary shows respect for the person you're emailing.

Use the "One Thing" Rule

Emails are not the same as business meetings. With business meetings, the more agenda items you work through, the more productive the meeting.

With emails, the opposite is true. The less you include in your emails, the better.

That's why it's a good idea to practice the "one thing" rule. Make each email you send about one thing only. If you need to communicate about another project, write another email.

Practice Empathy

Empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of other people. When you do this, you understand their thoughts and feelings.

When you write emails, think about your words from the reader's point of view. With everything you write, ask yourself:

  • How would I interpret this sentence, as someone reading it?
  • How would this make me feel if I received it?

This is a simple tweak to the way you write. Yet thinking of other people will transform the way they respond to you.

Here's an empathetic way of looking at the world to help you get started. Most people:

  • Are busy. They don't have time to guess what you want, and they'd like to be able to read and respond to your email quickly.
  • Appreciate a compliment. If you can say something positive about them or their work, do so. Your words won't be wasted.
  • Like to be thanked. If the recipient has helped you in any way, remember to say thank you. You should do this even when it's their job to help you.

In a moment, we'll look at how you can embed compliments and a thanks into the structure of every email you send.

Keep Introductions Brief

When you're emailing someone for the first time, you need to let the recipient know who you are. You can usually do this in one sentence. For example: "It was great to meet you at [X event]."

One way of keeping introductions brief is to write them like you're meeting face-to-face. You wouldn't go off into a five-minute monologue when meeting someone in person. So don't do it in email.

Not sure whether an introduction is needed? Maybe you've contacted the recipient before, but you're not sure if she'll remember you. You can leave your credentials in your email signature. This is ideal because:

  • It keeps the main email body as short as possible.
  • It avoids misunderstandings. Re-introducing yourself to someone who already knows you comes across as rude. If she's not sure whether she knows you, then you can just let her check out your signature.

Talking of signatures, make sure you've set one up. It's a shorthand way of sharing information that you should include in every email. But putting this information in your signature, you keep the body of your emails short.

Your signature should include:

  • Your name.
  • Your job title.
  • A link to your website.

Optionally, you can include links to your social media accounts, and a one-sentence elevator pitch on how you help people.

Limit Yourself to Five Sentences

In every email you write, you should use enough sentences to say what you need and no more. A helpful practice here is limiting yourself to five sentences.

Entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki explains:

Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time.

There will be times when it's impossible to keep an email to five sentences. But in most cases, five sentences are sufficient.

Embrace the five sentences discipline, and you'll find yourself writing emails more quickly. You'll also get more replies.

Not sure writing an email in five sentences is possible? Then read on...

Stick to a Standard Structure

What's the key to keeping your emails short? Using a standard structure. This is a template that you follow for every email you write.

As well as keeping your emails short, following a standard structure also helps you to write fast.

Over time, you'll develop a structure that works for you. Here's a simple structure to get you started:

  • greeting
  • a compliment or pleasantry
  • the reason for your email
  • a call to action
  • a closing message
  • signature

Let's look at each of these in depth.

Greeting. This is the first line of the email. "Hi, [First Name]" is a typical greeting.

Compliment or Pleasantry. When you're emailing someone for the first time, then a compliment makes an excellent opener. A well-written compliment can also serve as an introduction. For example:

  • "I enjoyed your presentation about [topic] on [date]."
  • "I found your blog post on [topic] really helpful."
  • "It was good to meet you at [event]."

If you're writing to someone you know, then use a pleasantry instead. A pleasantry is typically a variation on "I hope you're well." Alternatively, you can say thank you for something they've helped you with or for information they sent in a previous email.

As Vinay Patankar of the Abstract Living blog explains:

You should ALWAYS follow with a pleasantry after your greeting. EVERYTIME without fail. Ingrain this into your fingers so that you naturally spit it out with each email you write. There is no reason ever why your email shouldn’t have a pleasantry... You will never have anything to lose by adding in a pleasantry, you will make people more inclined to read the rest of your email, you will soften criticism, and will hit the positive emotions of a few. Most will simply ignore it, but for two seconds of your time, it's definitely worth it.

The reason for your email. In this section you say, "I'm emailing to ask about..." or "I wondered if you could help with..." You'll sometimes need two sentences to explain your reasons for writing.

A call to action. After you've explained your reason for emailing, don't assume the recipient will know what to do. Provide specific instructions. For example:

  • "Could you send me those files by Thursday?"
  • "Could you write that up in the next two weeks?"
  • "Please write to James about this, and let me know when you've done so."

Structuring your request as a question encourages the recipient to reply. Alternatively, you can use the line "let me know when you've done that" or "let me know if that's okay with you."

Closing. Before you sign off your email, be sure to include a closing line. This has the dual purpose of re-iterating your call to action, and of making the recipient feel good.

Examples of good closing lines include:

  • "Thank you for all your help with this."
  • "Does that sound good?"
  • "I'm looking forward to hearing what you think."
  • "Let me know if you have any questions."

Sign-off. This could be "Best Wishes," "Kind Regards," "All the Best," or "Thanks." You should always follow your sign-off with your name.

Use Short Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

Back in 1946, George Orwell advised writers to:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

This advice is even more relevant today, especially when writing emails.

Short words show respect for your reader. By using short words, you've done the hard work of making your message easy to understand.

The same is true of short sentences and paragraphs. Avoid writing big blocks of text if you want your email to be clear and easily understood. This leads to another of George Orwell's rules for writing, which can help you keep your sentences as short as possible:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Once you've followed your standard email structure, trim every sentence down to be as short as it can be.

Use the Active Voice

George Orwell again:

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

In writing, there are two kinds of voices, active and passive.

Here's a sentence in the active voice:

I throw the ball.

And here's the same sentence in the passive voice:

The ball is thrown [by me].

The active voice is easier to read. It also encourages action and responsibility. That's because in the active voice, sentences focus on the person taking action. In the passive voice, sentences focus on the object that's being acted upon. In the passive voice, it can appear that things happen by themselves. In the active voice, things only happen when people take action.

Proofread Your Email

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said:

If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.

In other words, writing short emails can be harder work than writing long emails.

Part of the hard work of writing short emails is careful proofreading. Read your email aloud to yourself, checking for spelling and grammar mistakes. Ask yourself:

  • Is my request clear?
  • Could there be any misunderstandings?
  • How would this sound if I were the recipient?

Delete any unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs as you proofread.

Remember, You're Not Fifteen Anymore

If you want to show your personality in your email, let this shine subtly through your writing style. Don't use emoticons, chat abbreviations (such as LOL), or colorful fonts and backgrounds. While these might have been integral to your emails during your teenage years, they are rarely appropriate in a professional context.

The only time it is appropriate to use emoticons or chat abbreviations is when you're mirroring the email language of the person you're writing to.

Write Like You Speak

Email is a less formal way of communicating than writing a letter or even making a phone call. Writing as you speak makes you come across as personable and friendly. It also helps you to keep your emails short. After all, few of us speak in extended paragraphs.

Additionally, make sure your emails reflect who you are in the real world. If you wouldn't say something to a person's face, don't say it in an email. And remember to mind your manners. "Please" and "Thank you" go a long way.

Over to You

What are your top tips for writing clear and professional emails? Let us know in the comments below.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Eye designed by Sergi Delgado from the Noun Project.

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