Despite the popularity of texting, email remains a standard means of communicating digitally in business and other organizational settings. What makes you look good, and what doesn’t?
There’s no universal agreement, and how you present yourself is in large part up to you and whatever organizational culture you’re a part of. But thinking through the options regarding the recipient fields, the subject line, the opening, the body of the message, and the ending can help. This is old hat to most of us, but sometimes reexamining old assumptions can shed new light.
Make your subject line informative. Instead of a nondescript label such as “Hey” or “Important information,” use words that indicate what your email is about, such as “Health benefits changing next year” or “Party this Friday.” If the conversation veers off to a new subject, change the email’s subject line to reflect the new subject matter covered.
Be careful who you’re emailing. The scenario of sending a flirty email intended for the cute girl or guy on your floor to your entire department has become a cliché, but it still happens. Check before sending.
Copy only necessary people when responding to a group email. Don’t forward jokes or other irrelevant messages indiscriminately to others. When you’re sending a group email and don’t want everyone to see everyone else’s email address, use the Bcc field, for “Blind carbon copy.”
Opening an email with “Dear [Name]” is old school, and chances are this quaint letter-writing practice will just make you look fuddy-duddy. Use “Hello, [Name]” or “Hi, [Name]” or just get right to your point.
In the body of your emails, place your most important information first to make sure it’s read. Then expand upon it with supporting detail. This is sometimes called the “journalistic triangle.”
Keep emails, including material quoted from previous emails, short. When possible restrict individual emails to a single request or theme. Quote previous messages only if you need to place what you say in context. Shorter quotes work best at the top, before you comment, and longer quotes work best at the bottom, after you comment. Another option is to quote multiple snippets and comment directly under each.
Think twice about typing in all lowercase, running sentences together, spelling words any which way, and using little-known jargon. This may save you time, but it will make it more time-consuming for recipients to understand what you’re trying to say.
Be careful about potentially offensive content and tone in an email, which can easily be forwarded to a third party. Better to be safe than sorry with jokes, political commentary, and overall snarkiness. Needless to say, avoid all sexist, racist, and other explosive subject matter that can get you fired. Many organizations have email policies that spell out appropriate use, but not all do.
Regard email as public, particularly email sent at work. When you’re using company equipment, company overseers have the legal right to see what you’re saying. Organizations are required to retain email, so assume any email you send will last forever.
Don’t waste your and others’ time by reflexively shooting back a response instead of considering whether a response is really needed. One-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” that are sent to the entire group that received the initial email just pull people away from other things they could be doing. Don’t email someone and immediately follow up with a text or phone call.
Email closings are also generally less formal than letter closings. You can still use “Sincerely,” which is better than “Dear” as an opening, but not by much. Similarly, “Yours” and “Yours truly” almost never mean what they say. These letter-writing conventions themselves are old-fashioned, coming from a time when people would write “I beseech you” in making simple requests.
“Cheers” can make it seem like you’re trying too hard to sound British. Better closings are “Best” and “Regards,” though “Regards” or “Best regards” should be used only if you mean it. “Thank you” or “Thanks” can work if you’re requesting something or filing a complaint. Or you can simply sign your first name or end with a more complete “sig” that includes your name and other identifying information.
Email can still be an effective, efficient means of communications. But it has its place within the realm of appropriate technology. If an email discussion goes beyond two or three messages between you and your co-communicator, you may both save time if you finish it by picking up the phone or stopping by in person.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.