More than twenty years after the internet has become available to the public, electronic mail is an integral part of daily office communication. Still, often even important emails sent to business partners are less than perfect in their composition. Spelling mistakes aside, there are a number of common problems in style which we will take a look at.
Overall, the style of writing in emails should not differ all that much from “previous” official means of communication like fax or letters. However, it has been proven that each medium does have slightly different requirements. A printed letter will always be more formal than an email.
1. Keep your emails short
If you have a lot of information to convey, consider writing a classic letter in a text editor and attaching it. In the email itself you can then – courteously – point to the attachment.
2. Check your spelling and grammar
If you prepare your emails offline in a text editor, you’ll usually have some kind of spell check to help you. Alternatively, ask another member of the team read over it, if it’s an important message. Otherwise, the recipient might infer that the message was written in a hurry and without real interest. In a business setting, that impression can be fatal.
3. Don’t take too long with your answer
Speed, after the saving from no longer needing paper or stamps, is one of the big advantages of electronic mail. In Europe the 12-hour rule has become standard on weekdays. It means that some answer is usually expected within half a day. Should that not be possible, for example because more information has to be gathered or prepared first, it is best to at least send a short note asking for patience. Automated responses, however, are generally frowned upon. It is best to only use them temporarily if really no one is checking the mailbox for a few days.
4. Use carbon copy sparingly
Some users, fearing they might be leaving someone out of the loop, or out of convenience, make very liberate use of the carbon copy function when sending emails. The function, along with its brother bcc, offers the advantage to inform other team members and maybe the boss in one go. However, if one message turns into a conversation and the users keep hitting the “reply to all” button, the flood of emails quickly becomes confusing, and will waste valuable time for those not directly involved in the matter discussed. And if large files are attached on top of that, some mailboxes can easily reach the limits of their capacity.
5. Use the correct greeting
Always include a proper greeting and signature. The latter can often be added automatically by the mail program. And don’t forget to use paragraphs to make the text easy to read.
6. Adhere to the law
In Germany certain information about the company like its legal form, registration office, CEO, is mandatory. Usually that information is added in a signature. Companies should set guidelines and make sure the staff is up to date.
7. Never answer spam emails – delete them immediately
Lately, spammer have adopted a new trick to verify email addresses: They add an opt-out link to their messages, like they are required in company newsletters. However, if you click on those links, you only tell the spammers that your email address is indeed being used, hence inviting even more spam.
8. The subject field should be the content of your message in a nutshell
In the field of business communications (or any communication in general for that matter) you will inevitably compete with numerous other senders for the recipient’s time and attention. If you desire your message to be read and answered in a timely fashion, make your subject line, short and to the point, and above all telling! Only add hints like “urgent!” if it really is that urgent. In that case, though, it might be best to simply pick up the phone. Email is not a live-chat.
9. Reduce the clutter
It is possible to include pictures, emoticons and the like to „pretty up“ emails. In a private setting it might be funny to spruce up a in invitation for a new year’s dinner with pictures of fireworks, but in a business setting such things are definitely not appropriate, even for emails sent only within your organization. Also, in many company networks, such images in emails are blocked by the mail sever to begin with, for security reasons. Hence even company logos and image elements in signatures often are not viewable.