How to Write Effective Professional Emails
Long before the pandemic, businesses large and small relied on email. Whether it was to circulate an interoffice memo, discuss progress on a project, or plan a meeting agenda, email was “the” way to communicate.
In many ways, email is a hybrid type of communication, blending casual conversations with the structure of a formal written letter. That means that when you write an email, you need to combine both informal and formal writing styles.
Think of it like this: if the formal written letter is like a black-tie event, and chatting with someone is like hanging out in sweatpants on the weekends, then business emails should be like business casual dress. It’s a hint of formality with a relaxed, friendly tone that’s always professional, but never stuffy. Email is the business casual of communicating.
Here are some tips to help you write approachable, professional emails.
Prep and Plan First
Before you hit “compose new email,” take a few moments to consider the who, why, and how of your email.
Who Are You Emailing?
Who are you sending this email to? Is it a colleague, your boss, or a hiring manager? Understanding who you’re sending the email to will help you plan everything else. It can help you determine what tone you should use, how to write a greeting, and even how to sign off.
Why Are You Emailing?
Know why you’re sending this email to the recipient. Are you thanking them for being your reference? Are you following up after a networking event? Are you asking a question about a project? Is this a job application?
Once you know what the purpose of your email is, you’ll have an easier time composing your thoughts into a sleek and coherent message.
How to Write a Professional Email
Once you’ve got the who, the why, and the how down, you’re ready to compose your professional email. But don’t just slap down a few sentences and hit send without considering all of the elements that help create an effective email.
Use the Subject Line Wisely
Make sure that the subject line of your email is filled in and makes the purpose of your email clear. It doesn’t have to go into great detail, but should be something more specific than “Hello.” The subject line should give the recipient a clue about what the email contains before they ever open it. This can help them prioritize your email as important and relevant, and also put them in the right headspace by setting expectations.
In general, etiquette for professional emails includes starting your message with a greeting (more on that below). However, the type of greeting you open your email with is dictated by who is receiving it.
For someone you’ve never met before (say, a recruiter), a more traditional opening is likely necessary. “Dear so and so,” is usually your best bet. If you’ve made a connection with the recipient (like at a networking event), it may be acceptable to start with a first name, “Dear Jamie,” for example. In some cases (though rarely), you may use Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr. and so on. In the case of a student emailing a teacher, for example, using a title is appropriate.
However, there may be times when you don’t have an exact name, like when you’re applying to a job. In that case, Dear Hiring Manager, or another title, would be acceptable. There are times, though, when a formal greeting, like Dear so and so, isn’t quite right. In that case, you can consider using an alternative greeting:
- Hi, so and so
- Good Morning/Afternoon!
And there may be times when something less formal (Hey there!) is appropriate, too. Again, this all depends on the recipient and your relationship with them. Sometimes, skipping the greeting is acceptable. However, these are rare exceptions. You’re more likely to skip the greeting when you’re responding to an email chain (and it’s the third or fourth reply in a series of replies).
Even when you have an established relationship with the recipient, it’s a wise idea to include some kind of greeting to open your email. Skipping it can come across as unprofessional or worse, rude and cold.
Start With an Explanation
Generally, you should explain why you are sending the email in the first few sentences, just after the opener. For example, if you’re thanking someone, start with that. “Thanks so much for the tip on the opening last week.” Or use something like, “I’m following up on our interview.” It helps frame the email’s purpose and gives the recipient more insight into why you’re sending it.
The Long and Short of It
As a rule, an email should be short but not too short. You want to provide the context that the reader needs without being too vague.
At the same time, though, you shouldn’t create a long email. If you’re going beyond four paragraphs, reconsider sending and see if you can trim anything and request a phone call to iron out the details–especially in a work setting.
Cover the crucial details (why you’re writing, what you hope to accomplish) as briefly and concisely as possible. Alternatively, you may want to create a longer document that you attach to the email that can be read later, or even printed.
Avoid Walls of Text
Sometimes, though, a professional email has to be longer than a few paragraphs. In those cases, consider breaking up your thoughts into bullet points or numbered sections.
Part of modern work life (pandemic or not) means people are staring at their screens for a majority of the day. Make it easier on your recipient by using white space in your email. Using white space simply means you’re breaking up large portions of your text into smaller ones. This makes it easier for the recipient to read your email.
For example, if you’ve got a paragraph that’s six sentences long, consider breaking it up into two three-sentence paragraphs. Or, format your thoughts into bullet points, so they’re easier to read.
Give Them Everything They Need
Before you hit send, make sure you include any additional information the recipient might find useful. While you may think it saves time to include the information within the email, consider instead including relevant links or attachments instead. This cuts back on the size of the email (making it easier to send) and allows the recipient to review everything else on multiple tabs, instead of scrolling up and down in your email.
Do More Than End Your Email
For many emails, though not all, you should include a call to action (CTA) at the bottom of your email. A CTA invites the reader to do something and can help drive home your message or let the recipient know that you’ll be taking action (like following up with them) in the near future.
For example, you could say you’re looking forward to speaking with them, and you’ll follow up in a few days. Or, you could invite them to click a link to check out your website. If you’re emailing coworkers, you could ask them to send you a document or to provide details on a project update. Regardless of your motive, you should make the desired action for the recipient clear so that they know how to appropriately move forward.
It goes without saying, but we’re saying it anyway—proofread your email before you hit send. Most email programs have some kind of spelling and grammar checker but those aren’t perfect!
Much like the greeting, it’s always good practice to include a signature on your email. Many email programs have a setting that allows you to create an email signature that automatically attaches to the bottom of every email you send. You can include links, quotes, and whatever else you’d like.
However, if you haven’t enabled it, make sure to add something instead of abruptly ending your email. Again, this can come across as rude. When in doubt, a simple “Thanks” is almost always appropriate.
Other Helpful Hints
Keep a few additional tips in mind while you write your email.
Tone is Tough
Regardless of the nature of the email, maintaining a professional and light tone is always your best bet. The entire email will be better received, and your chances of getting what you want if you’re making a request are greater. Remember that your tone cannot be easily determined from an email, so avoid using all capitals, be careful with exclamation points, and don’t forget your please and thank you’s.
Add Some Context
Sometimes you are the recipient of an email, but you need to forward that email on. When that’s the case, don’t simply add “See below,” then hit send.
While you don’t necessarily have to follow all of the above email writing tips when you’re forwarding a message, you should provide some context as to why you are forwarding the specific email (or email chain) to the recipient. You don’t need to summarize everything, but you should add some explanation to help the recipient out.
Replying to All
Reply all is, well, sometimes a recipe for disaster. But there are times when it’s necessary to reply to everyone on the string. Other times, though, it’s important to only reply to some of the recipients.
When possible, drop unnecessary people off the email chain. The customer service rep who sent the email up the chain for review likely doesn’t need to be involved in the conversation when the head of finance gets involved.
Leave Some Things Out
Emoticons, emojis, and gifs are tricky. Err on the side of caution with these. For example, if you’re sending an email to close coworkers, perhaps they’re OK to include if your company has a fun and light-hearted culture. However, if you’re following up on a job application, leave them out. They generally don’t have a place in professional emails unless there’s already an established relationship.
Humor is also something you should generally leave out of professional emails. The problem with humor is that what sounds funny doesn’t always read as funny, and the joke can get lost. Unless you have a solid relationship with someone, save the humor for in-person communications.
Write It for the Whole World
One of the best ways to keep your emails professional is to write it as if one day, the entire world may read it. This can help you decide when something should stay or go in an email. If you’d be embarrassed about the email in the future, it may be best to rewrite it today.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
These may seem like a lot of tips for writing a professional email. But with attention to detail, they’ll become second nature.
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