Write the perfect e-mail: tips for business mails

Around the world everyday there are approximately 269 billion e-mails sent – a large amount of which come from the professional sector. However, there are a lot of people out there who constantly make the same mistakes when writing professional e-mails and as a result can irritate their target audiences. Sometimes it is the case that poorly written e-mails are interpreted as rude, simultaneously they can also be real productivity killers. The American academic Eric Horvitz discovered in one of his studies that the average person needs up to 15 minutes after reacting to an e-mail before they can fully concentrate on their original task.

Quote

“We found that participants spent on average nearly 10 minutes on switches caused by alerts, and spent on average another 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the type of interruption) before returning to focused activity on the disrupted task.”

Eric Horvitz & Shamsi T. Iqbal: Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks: Field Study, Analysis, and Directions (2007).

It gets even more annoying when the e-mail in question is badly written, or worse, is completely unnecessary. To avoid basic mistakes like this, you should follow certain rules and guidelines.

How to format a professional e-mail?

In short: thoughtfully and carefully! Writing the perfect e-mail means treating the reader with a real air of professionalism and respect. This may require you to invest a bit more time, but it is most certainly worth it. The way in which you write your e-mails should be purposeful and target-orientated. On top of this, the writing should be informative and well structured. Make it clear what the reason behind sending the e-mail is and help the recipient understand your concerns.

Furthermore, it is very important that you keep it direct and to the point; keep it as short as possible, without ignoring politeness and style. By limiting the length of the text, you ensure that the content is to the point, and contains no unnecessary information. This makes it so much easier for the reader to get the important details from the e-mail. This should also ensure that everyone involved saves time – both you as a writer and the person who reads it.

You can also save time for the reader by avoiding unnecessary e-mails in the first place. Superfluous e-mails usually stem from three different situations:

  • Mailing lists: With just a few clicks you can send e-mails to countless recipients. This can be very useful, but as soon as someone clicks on ‘Reply all’, there is bound to be a lot of unwanted spam. The original sender poses a question to the group, but the answer is often only going to be relevant to them and not everyone else. Therefore, you should always consider for whom the e-mail is relevant for.
  • Inquiries: Letters are in no way a replacement for conversations, and e-mails are not chats. You can save yourself and your recipients a lot of time and annoyance by avoiding to and fro e-mails, and instead just opt for a telephone conversation. However, it is still recommended that after such a conversation that you sum up what was discussed in a quick e-mail. This allows everyone to be on the same footing.
  • Trivial matters: Everyday life in an office can get boring very quickly. For this reason, it has become normal for workers to exchange amusing e-mails. However, whether these are really desired by the recipient is something that the sender rarely ask themselves. It might be preferable for you to tell a joke at the water cooler, and avoid interrupting others at work.

As crucial as it is to keep e-mails short and to the point, it is equally as important that you never take shortcuts when it comes to politeness and etiquette. A proper greeting, please and thank you, as well as a friendly sign off – these are all minor things, which even in now in the 21st century are of great importance but are still regularly ignored. When you are sending an e-mail to someone then you will nearly always have a request of some sort: you are seeking some sort of information, requesting an appointment, or at the very least, want the recipient to take in the information – even if you are the responder. This is why it is advisable to stick to e-mail etiquette. This increases the chances of your e-mail being taken seriously by the recipient and also receiving a reply.

Tip

8 basic rules for writing proper e-mails:

  1. Select a convincing subject for your e-mail
  2. Address and greet your recipient in an appropriate manner
  3. Mention the most important information at the beginning
  4. Structure the content in a compact and structured manner
  5. Use lists and markups to create optical highlights
  6. Select a uniform font style and size
  7. End your e-mail with an appropriate salutation
  8. To finish, add your e-mail signature and any attachments

Business e-mail: format and content

Just like with paper letters, e-mails follow a certain pattern. Given that all readers know and expect this pattern, you should also structure your digital letters in this way. This makes it easier for readers to get an overview of the text.

Subject

At the beginning of every e-mail we find the far too frequently ignored subject line. The idea behind this is to communicate the motif of the message at the reader’s first glance, to ensure that they click on it. Unlike with a postal letter, the subject line has the additional feature that it allows the e-mail to be seen during an overview of the inbox. This means that the reader can decide more effectively whether they wish to read the e-mail straight away or leave it for later. Additionally, the details in the subject line make it easier to find and sort e-mails at a later point. Here are some examples of suitable e-mail subject lines:

  • Meeting: Project begin / 24.3 / 10 – 12p.m.
  • Performance report – April
  • Minutes from meeting – 7th April

Equally you should avoid a subject line that does not mention the issue at hand, is too long, or can even be interpreted as being passive aggressive:

  • Urgent!!! (it would be a lot more effective if you wrote what the urgent issue is.)
  • Request (better to mention what the request is.)
  • I have a few more questions following our conversation in the lobby last Friday (the text displayed in the subject line is quite limited, especially on smartphones.)
  • Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Sunday brunch with Gary and Claudia (A long row of reply abbreviations should be reduced and even avoided. With such e-mails, it is important to change the subject if it is no longer the same as it started out with. If in the meantime the correspondence is no longer about brunch on Sunday and instead about the distribution of work, then the subject needs to be changed. This is also crucial for the organisation and filing of e-mails.)
  • Is this really necessary? (It’s a bad idea to begin with criticism right from the beginning. This will lead the recipient to immediately go on the defensive and not take in any of the criticism. It is generally accepted that e-mails are not the best means of expressing frustration. This should be done in person instead.)

In the world of e-mail marketing there is a lot of energy devoted to coming up with effective subject lines. The likes of A/B tests and statistics can help to improve the opening rate. If you are writing an e-mail in day-to-day office life then it will usually not have marketing intentions. However, it is important to you that the e-mail is opened and read. This is why you should put plenty of thought into the subject line.

Greeting

The actual text of your e-mail begins with a combination of a greeting and addressing the reader. Although this is something that a lot of people have been known to get wrong.

How formal do I need to be?

It’s always better to be too formal and polite than to be not formal or polite enough. Stay on the side of caution and stick to the classic ‘Dear Mr. /Mrs. / Ms. …’, especially if you are writing to someone who you don’t know or who you know is of a superior standing to you. If you are already quite familiar with the individual then you can use ‘Dear…’ and the person’s first name. Only when writing to colleagues or clients that you know very well should you use ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’.

What title should I use when addressing the reader?

Sometimes writing professional e-mails can mean contacting individuals from an academic background, maybe even several. However, this only really becomes relevant if you are dealing with a Ph.D. Or it may even be that the individual or individuals in question are professors. In this case, the professor title replaces the Dr. part of the title; as can be seen in the examples below:

  •  Dear Dr. Murphy

         or
  • Dear Professor Murphy

‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘To whom it may concern’?

Only if you have no name of a contact person should you use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or even ‘To whom it may concern’, although this last one is regarded as slightly outdated. Therefore, it may be best to write ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.

Writing to multiple recipients

If an e-mail has multiple recipients, then naturally all must be addressed at the head of the text. If the amount of people you are writing to is less than five then the best option is to include all of them:

  • Dear Mr. Murphy, Ms. Smith, Mrs. Jones, Mr. Malone, and Ms. Littlewood

         or
  • Dear Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Jonas


If the number of recipients exceeds five then you should probably opt for ‘Dear all,’ instead of going to the effort of listing all respective names.

What should I do if I am unsure whether the recipient is masculine or feminine?

 It might sometimes happen that you only have the surname of a contact person, or maybe it is the case that it is not clear from the person’s first name what gender they are, e.g. Alex Jones. If this is the case then you should set about doing some detective work, because addressing someone with the wrong title could lead to your e-mail being completely disregarded. Company websites, social media pages, and even telephone books can assist in situations like this. If you are dealing with bigger companies, then it may also be worth getting in touch with the HR department. However, if none of these options are available then you should simply opt for ‘Dear Sir/Madam.’ While it may be slightly impersonal, at least it is a safe option. 

How should my opening sentence look?

Once you have addressed the recipient, this should be followed by a comma. This comma does not affect the sentence that follows – this should still begin with a capital letter:

  • Dear Sir/Madam,
    Thank you for your quick response…

Introduction

Before you address your concerns/wishes you should introduce the overall e-mail. This should be kept relatively short because it is crucial that you don’t waste the reader’s time, or yours for that matter, by writing more than is necessary. Depending on the situation, there are various possibilities when it comes to coming up with an introduction:

  • I am writing to apply for the advertised position in your Human Resources department.
  • Did you have an enjoyable vacation?
  • Thanks again for that enjoyable conversation last week.
  • Thanks so much for your speedy response.
  • I really enjoyed your presentation on ‘How to format a professional e-mail’!

The purpose of the introduction is to raise the spirits of the reader and to connect with them positively, before you get to the main body of the message. Personalised questions and comments are particularly useful. You should try to avoid standardised or meaningless phrases, and focus on the individual(s) in question. Ask them a question about their holiday, a sickness they’ve recently recovered from, or ask about their journey home from a recent event or team meeting. This sort of approach will let them know that you are genuinely interested in their wellbeing.

Main body

This is the core of the e-mail. Here the aim is to communicate your message as straightforward and as well structured as possible. Remember that the priority should be for the reader to efficiently and correctly understand the information. To do this, there are certain business e-mail format rules that you should follow:

  • Short sentences: Of course this is something that is easier said than done. Sometimes the circumstances can be a bit more complicated, meaning that you need at least three sub-clauses. However, if the reader encounters such a sentence, then they will have to expend a lot of time and energy to deconstruct and understand the issue in question. The danger here is that the reader will simply give up and not take in any of the information. This is why you should definitely opt for basic sentence structure.
  • Using bold and italics: Highlighting your text optically can allow the reader to find the most important facts and figures more easily. But this only works if you use these features sparingly. Excessive use will actually have the opposite effect. Here the general rule is – no more than one highlighted word or group of words per sentence.
  • Sensible use of paragraphs: Paragraphs give your sentence structure. Build your e-mail in a way that makes the context easily recognisable. As a general rule, you should try and limit each paragraph to three sentences.
  • Lists: These allow you to present statistics and facts in a compact manner. It could be anything – data from a meeting, costs for an upcoming project, participants for the next team outing, etc. This can allow the most important information to be taken in at first glance – every single time that the mail is opened and reopened. Readers do not need to scan through the entire e-mail again to find this information. However, there is a limit to the use of such lists; not everything can be communicated via lists and therefore actual text will be required as well.
  • Simple vocabulary: You should avoid making things more complicated than they are. Use basic words that everyone can understand, and do not assume that readers will go to the effort of looking up unknown words. This will make it so much harder to write a successful e-mail, i.e. one that communicates your message, and doesn’t leave the reader in the dark. Naturally this won’t be the case if you are exchanging e-mails with experts from the same field of expertise as yourself. In situations like this, it can be very useful to use technical vocabulary and phrases to show that you are familiar with the topic at hand. In cases like this, foreign words can be clearer and more exact than any synonyms.
  • Positive tone: Given how imperative it is that the reader reads the message favourably, takes it in, and is brought to action as a result, it is very advisable to use positive language in your e-mail. If you do find yourself being critical, make sure to keep it constructive. It’s always better to focus on what can be improved instead of going into detail about what it is that might be running badly or isn’t working at all. At the end of the day, if you wish to gain something from the reader, then you should avoid any sort of commanding tone or negative statements.
Tip

To write a well-structured text, you should not just begin thinking about the layout while writing. Before you start typing, make sure to plan the points you wish to make and what the logical order of things should be.

Ending

If you are serious about writing a professional e-mail, then you need a well-rounded conclusion to your correspondence. You should utilise the ending to bring about a call to action and/or to leave the reader with an overall positive feeling:

  • If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me by phone or by e-mail.
  • I look forward to getting to know you better at the workshop.
  • Further information relating to this offer can be found on our website.
  • I very much hope to hear from you in the near future.
  • Hope you have great weekend.
Note

Phrases like ‘Thanks in advance for getting back to me’ or ‘I appreciate you doing this for me’ are quite popular. However, this is the sort of thing that can annoy readers. This is because it demonstrates an expectation of something from the recipient.

Closing sentence

The final sentence of the e-mail is just as important as the opening one, i.e. the greeting. This can say a lot about the kind of esteem you hold the reader in. Here, just as throughout the whole e-mail, friendliness and politeness are the priority, however they should also not be exaggerated. Nowadays no one really finishes their e-mail with ‘Yours respectfully…’ or ‘Yours faithfully…’. Instead, your best bet is probably to opt for ‘Yours sincerely…’, or even, ‘Best regards…’ and ‘Best wishes…’. Added to this, the inclusion of some sort of personalised comment can leave a positive impression:

  • Best wishes from sunny Boston,
  • Regards to everyone in London,
  • Have a great week,
  • Hope you have a lovely vacation,

As you can see, these closing remarks are always followed by a comma. You can also choose to end them with a full stop and follow this up with a ‘Yours sincerely…’, ‘Best regards…’, etc. You can see an example here:

Enjoy your free time over the holidays.

Best wishes,

Noel Harris

Signature

This goes at the very end of the e-mail. The idea behind is that, if required, it can provide the reader with the contact details and additional information relating to the reader. Simply put, this is not the place for inspirational slogans or witty sayings. Here are some ideas for what you can include in your signature:

  • Full name, including full title
  • Job title – position within company
  • Company name
  • Company address
  • Company website
  • Your contact details (phone no. and e-mail address)

In addition to these details you can also include links to your personal social media or those of the business. You can also include the firm’s logo; bear in mind however that many users have blocked image files in their inbox out of safety reasons. This is why it is a good idea to ensure that the signature looks good, even without the company logo.

Tip

PS: This postscript stems from a time when letters were still written by hand. It occasionally happened that the sender forgot to include something in their correspondence, and therefore had to include it after their signature. This was done to avoid having to write the letter again from scratch. Nowadays, given that you can edit an e-mail as many times as you like before sending it, there is technically no need for a PS.

Attachments

You should only be sending attachments if they are necessary, and if they are deemed to be, then the file size should be kept as small as possible. The storage space of most e-mail inboxes is usually relatively limited, and recipients could get very frustrated if one of your attachments leads to them being unable to download other mails. It is becoming more and more the case that people are reading mails when they are out and about, and mobile data can sometimes struggle to download large attachments, or may even be unable to download them at all. Limit the size of attachments to no more than 5MB. With anything larger, you should first ask permission to send it; or you can also post a link to a data repository where the file would then be accessible. If the attachment is a document, then you should send this in the form of a PDF instead of a Microsoft Office format. This will be the option that is most readable.

Writing it right: Business mail examples

The following example contains all above mentioned aspects that you need to cover when writing a professional e-mail.

Subject: Invitation to X Workshop, 24.8.24.17

Dear Dr. Miller,

Many thanks for the pleasant and extremely informative discussion last week.

As I mentioned then, we have organised a workshop around the same topic. We have since conformed the final details and therefore I wish to now formally invite you to the event.

  • 24th August 2017
  • 10 am – 4 pm
  • Large conference room (first floor of our building)

At the moment we are anticipating approx. 28 participants. Catering will be provided.

We would also like to invite you to be one of our speakers at the event. If you are interested in doing this, then please get in touch as soon as possible.

I look forward to hopefully seeing you again at the event.

Best regards,

 

Peter Smith

Head of HR

 

Example Ltd.

123 Main St.

London
WC2A 2AE

Phone no.: 020 7098 0570

Fax: 020 7098 7672

E-mail: psmith@example.co.uk

www.example.co.uk

 

 

What has been done correctly in this e-mail?

  • The subject line is short and to the point.  
  • The greeting is appropriate and reflects the sender’s relationship to the recipient.
  • The introduction makes a very friendly reference to a previous encounter.
  • The main body is made up of several paragraphs.
  • The most important details are presented in a table.
  • The end of the e-mail contains a call to action.
  • The signature is comprehensive and contains all important details.
  • No unnecessary attachments.

How to format a professional e-mail: yes or no?

NO

YES

Spelling mistakes: Spelling and grammar mistakes make a terrible impression. It tells the reader that you have not made a lot of effort in compiling the e-mail.

Proofread: Before you click ‘Send’ you should read through your e-mail at least once to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Wrong greeting: If you misspell a name or mix up someone’s gender/title then you will anger the reader before they even set about reading the mail.

Correct title: Before you write an e-mail you should make sure that you are using the appropriate title of the recipient.

No attachment: Hit the ‘Send’ button too quickly? If you make reference to an attachment and then forget it, then you will be forced to send a follow up e-mail.

Check attachment: Before sending your e-mail you should always check if the correct attachment is in the final draft.

Emotional tone: Communicating via e-mail can lead to misunderstandings. Using overly emotional language can quickly cause tension.

Neutral tone: For professional e-mails a neutral/friendly tone is always the best choice. This will mean the best opportunity for the reader to take in all important information.

Convoluted sentences: Complicated sentence structures lead to confusion. Information can be misunderstood and even overlooked.

Short and sweet: Make sure to use sentences that are precise and easy to understand. Facts can be presented via lists, etc. making them a lot easier to take in.

Abbreviations: Anyone using abbreviations runs the risk of the reader misunderstanding or failing to understand your message. Readers will have to look up the meaning themselves or make assumptions about what they mean. It may also be that they ultimately just ignore the abbreviation.

Elaborate: The target audience should always be at the centre. Avoiding abbreviations will inevitably lead to you having to write more, but will also ensure that the reader understands everything that is being communicated.

Irony: Meaning something different to what you write is something that is hard to communicate via e-mail. Written irony is something that is very hard to master and understand.

Get to the point quickly: Your writing should undoubtedly reflect what you mean. With business e-mails it is quite rare that humour achieves the desired effect.

Emoticons: Smileys, emojis, and emoticons can sometimes help to depict a positive tone but can also be very unprofessional.

Just be friendly: You don’t need pictograms/illustrations to create a positive tone in an e-mail. Friendly and personalised questions show a lot of respect towards the reader.

Poor formatting: Poorly formatted e-mails are fun for no one, especially the reader. Something like a lack of paragraphs can become even more annoying displayed on a smartphone.

Good layout: A well-structured layout make it so much easier for the reader to absorb information. An easily accessible text can allow the reader to concentrate better on the content.   

Too long: If someone gets to the end of an e-mail and no longer knows what was written at the beginning, then this is a big problem. These days most people do not have the time to read and re-read every e-mail.

Stick to the bare essentials: Of course there are some topics that require longer explanations and discussions. However, when it comes to complex subjects, you should try and stick to the minimum amount of detail. This allows for more clarity around the whole general topic.

Unnecessary e-mail: It is logical that anyone who is constantly checking whether a mail is at all relevant will not have a lot of time to engage with its content.

Call up personally: Some things are much quicker and better explained over the phone. Following this, the notes from the conversation can be compiled in an e-mail.

Ignore cultural differences: Not all mannerisms and behaviours apply to every culture. This can mean that a desire for conciseness, which may be applicable here, is completely out of place in Japan.

Embrace multi-culturalism: When writing an e-mail, always make sure to address the recipients individually. You can improve your communication tenfold by making this effort; especially with international partners, and by adapting to their mannerisms.