Email is one of the most common forms of business communication these days. It is also an area where poor writing skills cause confusion and miscommunication.
Part of the issue is that people are not taught ways of properly communicating via email. While some will search out tips and advice, those that aren’t interested will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. These mistakes will lead to confusion at best, to hurt feelings and damaged relationships at worst.
A good business communication should be clear, to the point, and actionable; with a concrete request or next action spelled out. Technically it should be properly formatted, signed, and addressed to the correct people.
In today’s business world it isn’t uncommon to receive hundreds of emails every day. By following some professional guidelines you can help ensure that you are only sending actionable, valuable messages.
Some common mistakes to avoid:
Writing too much – If you need to write a full report then do it in MS Word and attach the document. Writing long emails is tough to master and 9 times out of 10 your original idea will be lost in the mix.
Writing too little – Except in the case of a “message received” type email, make sure to include all relevant information. It is time consuming and painful to drag information out one email at a time.
CC’ing Everybody – Sending emails to everyone on the project list, or through the company, is rarely appropriate. It also wastes valuable time for those people, who may start to cringe when they see your name in their inbox.
Not copying the right people – On the flip side, make sure that everyone who needs to know is copied on your message. If you miss somebody the best thing to do is quickly forward the message to them with a small note of apology for the oversight.
Profanity / Inappropriate – Funny story. One day I received a message from a Superintendent with a racy powerpoint slideshow involving… well you can use your imagination. Turns out he had sent it not just through the entire vessel, but the entire company! From the CEO to the mail room clerk, everybody got a copy. Some thought it was hilarious, others were deeply offended. This misstep caused all kinds of problems and could have been avoided by not sending it at all, or at least copying the right people
Format of a good email
Subject Line – The subject line needs to accurately tell the recipient what to expect in the message. Not only does this set the stage, but it also allows for easier searching and recall of the message later on.
The Right People – See above. Typically you should have one addressee who is the person that you are interacting with, or who will be making the decisions. Everyone else who has a vested interest in the info you are presenting should be in the CC line.
Thesis – The first line or two should explain your message, request, or what this relates to.
Explanation – This is the second and longest paragraph, and is where you explain the thesis statement or provide evidence to back up your position. It can run into multiple paragraphs as required, but always be mindful of the ABC’s (see below!)
Call to Action – Your closing statement, this should make a specific request or call to action (CTA) of the person you are sending the message. If there is no next action to be taken on their part then what is the point of sending the email in the first place? The CTA must be specific and have a time line attached.
Attachments – I always try to double check but still forget occasionally. If you say that you are attaching a file, make sure it gets attached!
Your writing “Voice”
You will develop your writing voice continuously during the course of your career. The more you write, the more chances you have to improve. When writing business emails there are a few points to keep in mind before hitting send.
A business like tone – When you are writing a business mail you are representing your company and are speaking, at least in part, in your companies voice. As such you should maintain a business-like tone.
Use punctuation, no kid spelling – Don’t write like you text. Proper grammar rules are important and easy to learn. Strunk and White is a great place to start.
Writing like you talk – This is maybe nitpicking as your writing voice will reflect your speech patterns to a degree. But removing the more colorful catch phrases and vernacular will help keep your message Accurate, Brief and Clear.
The ABC’s of Writing
Clearly I’m big on TLA’s here, and this one is my favorite. Every piece of writing should be put through this brief check to ensure each of the three points are met.
Accuracy – Is the information you are trying to convey accurate, or is the message worded ambiguously? Are your facts and numbers correct?
Brevity – Is your message to the point or does it ramble on? Each word you write should help drive the message to its final destination, not slow it down. Note that you should err on the side of briefness, but never at the expense of completeness.
Clarity – Is your message clear and does your writing voice ring true? Make sure to check that your message cannot be misconstrued. Remember that sarcasm does not translate well in print.
Putting it all together
Here is an example email that follows the principles listed above. Any similarity to places or events are coincidental. See if you can spot the ABC’s in action.
To: John Doe – Project Manager
CC: Bob; Mary; Doug; info@Project.com
Subject: Project Milestones
Please find attached the revised project milestone document.
The reason for the revision is due to the timeline being modified as a result of lack of parts availability. The order of the critical steps has been modified to help work around this issue. I have also included Bob, Mary and Doug in copy to help familiarize themselves with the changes.
Please review and comment on the changes no later than Friday.
What tips or techniques do you use when writing business emails?