As you develop your career, you will be interacting with more and more people, and small things you do in those interactions can go a long way to forming their perceptions of you.
The habits you have in emailing your BFF or texting your mom can get in the way of a positive impression you’re trying to create with others whose relationships will matter.
We haven’t seen any truly egregious examples just lately however we figured it was time to publish a list of better ways to email, so you can start to cultivate more awareness of how you might be perceived when you send a quick little note off to the ether. These tips are geared towards workplace communications with some academic and general business etiquette sprinkled about for good measure.
1. Use a proper salutation.
Even if you are very casual with someone and you email them constantly, there’s no reason to skip a proper “Hello.” Don’t launch into your request or the reason for the email in the very first sentence. Stop and address them. “Hey Madeleine” or “Hi Sudendra” and then say what you want to say.
What if you’re writing in to a company or a team and you don’t know the name of the person who will receive your request? No problem, you can still start with a greeting. “Dear Team” often works, or at minimum, just say “Hello” or “Hey there” or something similar. Use a tone that matches the nature of your request and/or the tone that the company sets. If you’re emailing your doctor’s office, say, “Dear Dr Chen.”
If you’re emailing a professor at school, then use their proper title. If your professor has a PhD, then that means to address them by “Dr.
2. Use a clear subject line.
These should be tailored to the specifics of the relationship so there’s more leeway on this advice especially; most of this section is for cold emails or contacting someone you don’t work with on the daily. However in all cases, the subject line should be specific and clear.
For example, instead of “follow up” say “follow up on Project X” or even “follow up: comments requested on draft 3”
If you’re emailing someone in real time to give them a heads-up on something they need to know now, you can do something like this:
“Running late for 3pm meeting – be there at 3:10 (EOM)”
The “EOM” means End of Message. That’s telling them that they don’t have to open up the email to know what you’re trying to convey. They get everything you’re telling them from the subject line alone. Obviously you can text them instead if you have their phone number.
Directly related to this:
3. Start a new thread for a new topic.
This is in the category of common courtesy for your recipient. Instead of replying to the previous email chain you had with your boss or whomever when you have a totally new and unrelated question that you want to ask about something else entirely, compose a new message. We’re not sure why this is so difficult but people frequently cannot be bothered — and it’s annoying. If you have a new topic, start a new message. It’s likely that the person you’re emailing is dealing with way more incoming emails than you do, and helping them to stay organized is the polite thing to do. Plus, it makes it way easier to locate the information you need later on, when you’re hunting for a historical item in your inbox down the road.
4. State a clear action item.
It can come across as very pushy if you include this in the opening of the email, but it also can often be effective to set the stage of your request right upfront. “I wanted to ask a favor for…” or something to set the stage, before you go into the details of the situation you’re writing about, can be useful for context and let the reader know what all this is about. Or: “We need to reschedule the April conference” and then explain why. Or: “I need your input on the impact to changing the spec” and then lay out why things are changing. Help your recipient to know straightaway what’s required of her, then give the details that she needs to respond to the request.
If your email is only to deliver information, then that should be captured by the subject line itself. Something like “Meeting notes: Marketing Kickoff” and then reiterated in the opening paragraph: “Here’s what we discussed with Kathy today”
Also, if you’re writing to make a request of someone, then give them all that they need to respond to that request within one communication. Don’t force them to go back and forth with you a bunch of times in order to make it happen.
For example, if you are trying to set up a meeting, then suggest three different dates and times for the recipient to consider. Be sensitive to time zone issues. Suggest your possible appointment times in their time zone and be explicit that you’ve done so. Don’t just say, “When is good for you?” since that requires them to do the work of looking for possible times that might fit for you, and they’ve got the mental burden of juggling and guessing. It’s much easier for someone to respond to whether any of your proposed times will work than to come up with ones from scratch on their own. (This needs to be tailored to the nature of the relationship, of course, and the type of request being made.)
5. Short and sweet is key.
Executives are busy. Support people are busy. Heck, everyone is busy. If your topic requires too much explanation, then perhaps a phone call would be better?
If you find your message going long and you need to use email to deliver it, then at least break it up into meaningful sections. Use bullet points if appropriate. And be sure that the beginning of the message has a summary statement or indicates what the recipient needs to do with all of it.
6. Proofread and spellcheck.
Take the time to polish it before you send it out. Even an email. Attention to detail is a valuable skill and writing in proper English with correct grammar is your statement to the world that their time and attention
is are valuable to you. Sloppiness only reflects on you. “Writers whose emails included more errors were believed to be more apathetic” concluded one study. (Edited to cite Muphry’s Law per the correction in this paragraph!)
It should go without saying that you need to write in full sentences. Turn the CAPS LOCK off. Don’t scream at your recipient. Use proper capitalization at the beginning of a sentence, and punctuation when you’re finished. That annoying habit of all lower-case writing is just as bad as all caps. Spell out all the words. An email is not a text. There is no place for stupid shortcuts like “ur” or “lol” or “4” in the place of real words (unless it’s a Snap or your Tinder profile or some other message that does not belong in the workplace).
Different companies have different cultures, and different standards or norms will prevail. However, even if you’re in a super casual environment, taking the time to do your own emails this way can be worth it. It’s kinder and more respectful to the recipient than what we often see, and who knows, if everyone did this then it could even reduce the amount of email that everyone gets.
Most important though, we want to remind you that your professional reputation is built over time.
What you do on your own life in written communications to your friends is up to you. When you’re working in a professional environment — even a very casual one like that of a young company or at a place that seems to blur the lines between social and professional — or should we say, ESPECIALLY at such a place — then these things matter. Even if others don’t attend to them, you still should. Even if it seems nobody notices, we assure you, they do.
Maintaining a bit of distance or a whiff of formality in your relationships at work will serve you much better down the road. You can be friendly with everyone but beware if you think that all of you are friends first. In our experience, when the sh!t hits the fan and a project or team or whole department goes into crisis, you will discover that you’re not actually all BFFs like you thought. Maintaining decorum among professional peers even in small ways like this can let you navigate such extremes more easily. Hopefully none of that ever happens to you but undoubtedly if you keep working long enough it will.
Attending to the details and sweating the small stuff lets you build strength on a perhaps imperceptible level in your daily life — and these things add up.
Do you want to be a leader who everyone looks up to?
Do you want to be worthy of respect?
Do you want your ideas to be heard?
Be polite and other-sensitive in how you convey them. Give others the respect that they deserve, starting now.
It’s the little things that matter in life, Brave Supplicant.
This is where character is formed.