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In person, most people are personable and likeable, and even tactful and diplomatic when necessary. Some, however, occasionally make a less-than-favorable impression through business email correspondences. Usually, this occurs because time is short and the day’s agenda is long. Sometimes it happens because we underestimate the potential for poor impressions or misunderstandings when facial expressions and vocal tones are removed from our communications.
Composing an email that comes across as you intend requires understanding the limitations of email and the social conventions of business communications. By applying the following rules, you can ensure that every message you send delivers the right impression:
A business email should be all substance and no fluff. Anything less and you are wasting your recipient’s time. This may be the most common misconception in business email etiquette. Diving right into the substance of your email is similar to walking into someone’s office and immediately jumping into the meat of a conversation without a courteous, “Hello, how are you?” or a similar tone setter. It can come across as robotic, unfeeling, and even deliberately offensive. Set a friendly tone at the beginning of all new emails, especially to recipients you do not know well.
In person, we know whether to address a customer or business associate as “sir,” “ma’ am,” “Mr. Smith,” or “Ms. Wilson.” When sending an email, think of how you would address the respondent in person and extend the same courtesy in email. When in doubt, err on the side of being overly polite. In fact, this decision is much more important in written communications when there are no visual cues to demonstrate appropriate respect.
In face-to-face conversations, make every effort to demonstrate to business associates and customers that we have empathy for their experiences. We are approachable, respectful, friendly, and helpful. Much of how we communicate is through body language and facial expressions, so the email format requires that we substitute written words for these forms of communication. Consider how the words you choose establish a tone, and whether formal or informal language is appropriate.
DID YOU KNOW?
Reading and answering email now accounts for 28% of the average worker’s week. McKinsey Global Institute
A University of Pennsylvania study reported that the majority of communication is transmitted non-verbally. They found that 70% of communication is body language, 23% is voice tone and inflection, and only 7% is spoken words! This means that we are extremely limited in how we can express ourselves in email interactions, and we must learn to overcome the limitations.
Sure, there are times when you have to communicate a less-than-positive message. You may need to call attention to a mistake an employee made or critique a proposal. Offering constructive criticism is much easier in person, where you can see how the person responds and adjust accordingly. In email, you don’t have this opportunity, so your tone usually has to be received as positive on the whole. Words like “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” or “can’t” can sound harsher by email than intended. Declarations may also seem intimidating, whereas questions can be received more positively. Instead of saying “Don’t run this report until the end of the day,” consider asking, “In the future, can you run these reports after 5 p.m.?”
What’s the story of your email? Reduce it to a short sentence or phrase and make that your subject line (Example: My notes on the process revisions for the Claremont project). Just make sure it doesn’t strike an unnecessarily urgent or terse tone. If a matter is urgent, you may include that word, but avoid using all caps. This is typically received as screaming by email recipients.
When sending B2B emails, this rule is especially important, given the shortage of time most people have in their workdays. Once you have set a proper tone, communicate key points as briefly as possible without leaving out important details. If you are communicating steps, processes, or a list of details, consider using bulleted lists. Organizing points in this way makes it easier for the reader to understand without having to re-read.
We often receive business emails that are full of abbreviations, shorthand, and sentence fragments. Though these tools shorten the email and make it look concise, they actually hinder comprehension. Shorthand can also be misconstrued as curt and impolite. Use full words and sentences. Proofread your emails before sending and omit any extraneous details to strike the perfect balance.
Humor and emails (and text) rarely mix well. Humor can be misunderstood if your recipient doesn’t know you well enough to recognize your charming sarcasm, irony, or absurdity. As enjoyable as humor can be in person, conveying it well in written form depends so much on visual and auditory cues that it is just too risky to attempt.
Once in a while, you may receive an email requesting information that you cannot provide right away or a timely response that you are unable to accommodate. If you are too busy or need time to think about how to respond, send a short note explaining your situation and letting the person know when you will answer their email. Not taking this step can leave people in limbo and result in a poor impression or a strained relationship.
Some of the most brilliant people we know are poor writers or spellers, and have been misjudged as careless or uneducated. Use grammar and spelling checkers to make sure there are no mistakes that would give the reader a poor impression of your effort. Be careful not to rely too heavily on spell-checkers, as they may not notice misspellings when words are used incorrectly (e.g., to, too, and two).
Following these rules may add a minute of time to your communications, but being perceived as you intend is worth that effort. Once you get in the habit, it won’t be long before these rules become second nature.
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