There’s no doubt that texting has taken the place of millions of emails each day; however, even with the rise of texting, emails aren’t going away soon — or ever.
According to SourceDigit.com, each day this year, there are 116.2 billion business emails sent/received worldwide (an increase of 7% from last year) and 80.2 billion other emails sent/received (accounting for a 3-percent decrease from last year).
That means for all our texting, we’re sending more business emails than ever before, and our personal emails have only decreased by three percent.
There’s a lot of typing every day — I feel carpal tunnel syndrome coming on just thinking about it — but I fear that not nearly as much communicating is taking place.
That’s because what’s typed quickly into an email and sent on its way as fast as a lightning bolt with a push of the send button, if not thought through with care and double-checked for tone and clarity, can land in the other person’s inbox and leave the reader with more questions than answers. More “What the heck!?” than “That was nice of him!” And more to complain about to you than compliment you on.
With the list of easy, gracious email “dos” below, that won’t happen to you!
Why Emails, If Not Carefully Written, Can Be Hazardous to Your Relationships and Livelihood
We all know an email horror story or two. Jobs have been lost, relationships frayed or ended, and reputations tarnished or ruined from what someone has written or read in an email.
Misunderstandings between sender and receiver happen for a lot of reasons. And the reasons are important because, when we know them, we’re much more conscious about applying the dos for avoiding them to our emails.
The most common are because:
- Emails have what’s known in communication as a small bandwidth. In other words, what you write communicates only the most basic of intent. So even if your email is full of great information, the person(s) reading it assign their own intent to your words. Depending on the personality of the readers, your careful use of words you thought made you sound smart reads to them like you’re trying to make them feel dumb. Your business tone in the email you spent thirty minutes trying to get just right to impress the potential clients makes them feel like they received a form email instead of a personal thank you from a professional trying to establish a relationship with them. We could come up with dozens of other scenarios; the most important take-away is this: what someone “reads into” your email means far more than the words you crafted, and no matter how careful we are, there’s no way to get around the small bandwidth and avoid misunderstandings. (The only form of communication with a smaller bandwidth is texting.)
- The majority of people assume the worst instead of the best. It shouldn’t be that way. But it is. They read more in between the lines you wrote than in the lines you wrote. The fewer people know you, the more they do it to you.
- There is nothing of you in your emails. Nothing. Your emails pop up on other people’s computers in the font their computer defaults to, in the format it defaults to (HTML or plain text), on their desk or smartphone, in their own environment. I call it the DNA Effect since none of your DNA transfers to the communication. Your email is not on your hand-chosen stationery with your scribbly or beautiful handwriting forming the words. You didn’t touch any part of it. There was no card to touch, no pen, no envelope, no stamp. Nothing. You’re far enough removed from the recipients that it’s all them. And depending on the person, this can, and usually does, distance you even more.
- The outlook isn’t quite so glum if you know the person you’re writing to; however, it isn’t all that much better, not enough to risk hurting your relationship, be it business, social or family. When in doubt, pick up the phone. Next to talking in person, phone calls have the biggest bandwidth, because they allow for immediate back-and-forth and clarification. Even a voice mail, although you don’t have the benefit of immediacy, lets the recipient tell so much from your tone of voice that it avoids lots of miscommunication.
The Top Email Dos
Out of the 196.4 billion emails sent/received today, how can your authentic voice be heard through the words you write, and miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided?
There’s no guarantee, sadly. There are, however, best practices!
Here are the gold standards for writing an email that is more likely to be read and interpreted in the tone and intent you wrote, and earn you the reputation of a gracious, clear, concise communicator — traits everyone will appreciate and admire in you.
Note: These are in no particular order. Some apply more to business emails. Some apply more to personal emails. Some apply to writing to people you know and some to people you haven’t spoken to or met previously. They’re all gold standards, so apply them as you see fit. You’re sure to shine!
1. Call before emailing. While this often isn’t possible, you’ll have better results by making your first interaction with someone be a phone call or voice message. If you feel a phone call might be too intrusive for a first meeting, call at a time when you’re almost certain to get voice mail (after business hours for a professional call or while the person is at work for a social call).
Hearing your voice lets others feel they’ve met you. Mention in your call that you’re sending an email. Then when they open your email, they’re more likely to read it with the attitude your voice carried in the call than in their own voice, or in a voice they would have assigned you randomly if they had never heard your voice.
If time isn’t of the essence, another approach is to send a handwritten note via standard mail. Letters are so rare these days that they stand out in a great way! In the note, let the person know you’ll be sending an email and even what the subject line will be, so it’ll be sure to be noticed when it arrives. This is the perfect substitute (and a smart one) if you feel a phone call isn’t the right route for you.
2. Introduce yourself. In the first sentence or two of your email, introduce yourself the same way you would if you were meeting someone in person for the first time. After all, you popped into their world (their inbox) unannounced, so an introduction is called for, and it’s the first step in establishing a relationship.
3. Begin with a greeting/salutation, and end with a complimentary close/valedictory. This is something that many are trying to get away from in our text-immersed culture; however, an email isn’t a text, and they have different standards.
Beginning your email by using just the person’s first name is like entering a room and shouting for them.
It’s standard form in an email to begin with a greeting and end with a kind close. Both the greeting and close will vary depending on your relationship with the person. The less you know the person (especially in business emails), the more formal the tone you use until the relationship is established.
To a friend or someone you have an established business relationship with, you might write:
Good Morning, Tess!
When more formality is called for, the proper form is:
Dear Mr. Thompson:
Dear Ms. Rodriquez: (Ms. is the proper honorific to use in a business setting unless she requests you use Mrs.) For more about honorifics and their use today, I’ve written about it in this post on the blog. (It’s one of the ten most read posts, so it’s certainly a popular topic!)
There’s an even stronger push to get rid of complimentary closes/valedictories in emails. It’s because people have a hard time thinking of what to write, but there are soooooooo many choices, it shouldn’t be hard to have four or five favorites that you use. Again, the more you know the person, the more casual you can be. They’re important to use because you want to end on a cordial note.
In casual settings, any “fond farewell words” (the meaning of valedictory) are fine to use: All my best, All the best, Blessings, Hugs, Looking forward, Your friend, XOXO, Wishing you the best, Fondly, Warmly, Enjoy the rest of your day, I’ll be thinking of you during your big presentation, Fingers crossed, Prayers said, Praying, You are the best — we could go on and on. And what’s great is that some of these can also be used in a business email if you have an established relationship.
When your email calls for a more formal close, then you’ll want to go with:
Sincerely, Sincerely yours, Yours truly, or Respectfully yours
For writing formal business letters, whether sent via standard mail or email, this post from Study English Today is a fantastic, concise resource worth printing out and keeping.
When you’re typing emails back and forth as if they were texts, I still would begin with a warm greeting, but on the third email you can drop the complimentary close and simply use your name.
4. After three back-and-forth emails on the same subject, think about breaking the monotony and upping your bandwidth by calling the person. It’s amazing how often one five-minute phone call can accomplish more than ten emails! After three emails, use your sixth sense, but consider talking to the person. It gives you a chance to further establish your relationship and to clear up or avoid any miscommunication.
5. Be the star by letting people know when no reply is needed. Sometimes, people don’t know when it’s OK to stop replying to emails. You confirm the meeting is Thursday at 10 AM, and they email you to confirm that they received your confirmation. Yikes! When you don’t need to hear back, write “No need to respond.” as one of the last sentences of your email. Your inbox will be less stuffed, and the recipients will be happy to know that their obligation to email you is complete.
6. If at all possible, set your system to accept HTML emails. HTML is now the standard, so most emails are sent that way. If you can only accept plain-text emails, prepare to get a lot of them with blank spaces and strange computer codes where photos, certain links, and other things would normally appear. You might want to ask your clients their preference of HTML or plain text and modify your emails to them, if possible.
7. Change the subject line in back-and-forth emails. When there are more than two emails on the same subject, you’ll want to change the subject line to make it specific to what’s covered in the email you’re writing.
Let’s say you’re Maralee, the committee chair of your children’s school’s largest annual fundraiser. You won’t want the subject line of all 100-plus emails all week long from various parents and others about the event to be: Annual Fundraiser.
Rather than keeping the sender’s subject line, change it when you reply to make it specific to what you’re replying to in your email: Maralee’s Confirmation of Volunteer Jim’s Schedule Change for the Week of the Fundraiser.
You’ve just become Jim’s favorite person of the moment because while sifting through his emails, he can find yours without having to run an email search (which often brings up either no or incorrect emails). And if the two of you have exchanged dozens of emails on the same subject, a name search would bring up dozens of emails he would have to muddle through.
8. Your email signature line is your business (or personal) internet stationery/business card. You know how carefully the stationery you use to send standard letters was crafted. (That’s if your company still uses it — many don’t.) Your internet “stationery” for emails is usually limited to your signature block, so make it great!
Be sure to use a well-designed email signature that includes, depending on your business, your street address, email address, phone number, website, and anything else you’d like for the client to have easy access to. In all cases make sure there is at least one other way recipients can reach you listed in your signature line.
To give you an idea, here’s my signature block. (The links to my social media are live when it’s sent via email.) I place the block at the bottom of emails after my complimentary close and typed name. It was created by my web designer and incorporates the blog/website’s look and colors to maintain brand identity.
9. When sending your email to multiple recipients, hide all the other addresses. When writing a magazine article, I was once part of a group email from the publisher that contained the “top secret” personal email address of someone running for President at the time. He was part of the group because he was the cover story that month.
I’m sure this address was changed frequently; however, I and others on the list should have had no access to it. I didn’t email him, but I wonder whether others did.
People’s email addresses should be treated with the same respect and “secrecy” as their home address and phone numbers. You wouldn’t think of sharing those with others. These days, email addresses are considered private information, too.
10. Use BCC as little as possible. BCC stands for Blind Carbon Copy (or Blind Courtesy Copy), and unless people (such as your boss) ask you to send everything to them, there’s rarely a reason to use BCC. If something is important to others, they’ll ask you for the information. You don’t need to keep them informed of every reply, every task completed, and the like. When you’re doing your job correctly, there’s no need to keep others informed of your every move. This applies to ALL group emails, not just the use of BCC. People really dislike getting other people’s replies when it has no direct effect on them.
11. If you’re going to be out of the office for more than 24 hours, use an auto-responder. In it, share when you’ll return, whether you’ll be checking email and/or voice messages, and whom someone can contact in case of an urgent matter.
12. Write specific and enticing email subject lines so that the other person’s curiosity is peaked enough to want to open your message and your email doesn’t end up in the SPAM folder. A subject line that reads, General Office Policy Update is going to be the last (i.e., never) opened email in anyone’s inbox. However, if you title that same email New Policy that Affects Your Vacation Days, it will be opened and read before you’ve had time to pour yourself a cup of coffee after sending it.
However, don’t use your subject line as a way to practice your fiction writing with creative titles that make people want to open your emails but have nothing (or little) to do with the content. Otherwise, you’ll earn the reputation of the boy who cried wolf, and no one will take your future emails seriously enough to read them.
13. For the best communication, limit your email to three points/questions. In a long email it’s easy to forget to answer one of the many questions asked. That means you’re going to have to write a second email, and so is the recipient.
People like short and sweet emails, and they like to feel they’ve accomplished something (reading and then providing everything you requested in your email). Keep them short, and then ask additional questions over the phone or in a separate email. They’ll be happy to hear from you again!
14. White space is as important as the words you write for getting your message across clearly. Emails and blogs need to follow the basics of good grammar and correct spelling, but they don’t follow the same rules of paragraph length, full sentences, and spacing. People tend to skim them instead of read them word-for-word.
As this post in Academic Advising Today points out, white space is needed for giving “…time to breathe while reading…as well as [making] it easier for them (the readers) to find their place should they have to stop reading and come back to the email.”
In emails, and most on-screen writing, one-sentence paragraphs are fine.
Full sentences, optional.
Use bold for important points you want your readers’ eyes to catch as they scan. But don’t use all capital letters, because that’s still considered email shouting. Plus, all-caps are usually harder on the eyes to read. If you’re using all-caps because that makes the letters larger and thus easier for you or your recipient to read, then instead, simply increase the font size.
15. Use the Inverted Pyramid technique of writing. In this technique, you write the thing you most want to get across to the reader first, and then follow with more details or other points. That way, a reader whom you lose quickly will at least have gotten your main point, most likely.
16. Let those you work with know what time of day you check email. Unless you were hired to check incoming emails, you don’t need to continually check your work inbox. Your company protocol will have to be followed, of course, but if there isn’t one, checking your box two or three times a day is plenty. You were hired to do a job. Emails help you complete the job, but they aren’t the job.
If you want to check twice a day, a good rule of thumb is about 30 minutes before lunch and 30 minutes prior to the end of office hours. During your first check, you can handle anything important from overnight or that morning before you eat lunch. Checking 30 minutes before the end of the day will make sure no one is kept waiting overnight on an urgent matter. If you want to check three times a day, add in checking email 30 minutes after arriving at work. Before checking, make a list of the top three things you want/need to accomplish that day. Run every email through the litmus test of your Top Three List before going off course. This will help you keep someone else’s important item from stealing away the time you need to accomplish what you’ve already deemed crucial for the day.
It’s Important to Know the Best Practices When it Comes to Email Dos and Don’ts.
Bandwith, tone, clarity, sincerity, and more — they’re all important aspects of sending an email that’s well received. There are of course more email dos. But my goodness, this would be a long post (even longer!) if we covered more. These are the dos that I try to remember and apply to every email I send.
“What about the don’ts?” you ask.
That’s our very next blog post!
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Thank you for reading this post, and for being part of the Manners Mentor family and movement to make the world a little more lovely one gracious encounter at a time.
Until next time, keep doing what you and no one else can do, bless those around you by being you….at your best!