Over the years I’ve written thousands of emails. Although none has won a Pulitzer, each, incrementally, has taught me how to communicate more effectively. Hoping to flatten your learning curve, here’s some friendly advice.
1. Become a poet
Some define poetry as the best possible usage of the least possible words. Think then of your emails as poems. Don’t be dramatic or flowery, of course, but do use simple, easy-to-understand language; the fewer the syllables, the better.
To give your words the power they deserve, write in the active voice. For example: “Your order will be handled by Mr. Jones,” is passive. “Mr. Jones will handle your order,” is active. Another benefit of writing in the active voice is that active sentences tend to be shorter. Note how the active-voice sentence has six words, while the passive-voice sentence has eight.)
2. Become a journalist
Why are newspaper articles so easy to scan? Their paragraphs are only one to two sentences long. What a great model to follow, especially when you insert a double space between paragraphs. Should your email still appear text-heavy, create additional paragraphs or rewrite. (Some people recommend that you use no more and 15 to 25 words in a sentence.)
3. Use proper grammar and punctuation
Although emails tend to be less formal than other communications, grammar and punctuation still matter. Well-written emails make a strong first and lasting impression. They convey confidence and are easy to read. Poorly written emails detract from both the message and the messenger. Ditto for poorly punctuated emails. Misplaced commas, missing periods — even one can dramatically alter your meaning, let alone confuse your readers.
One last thing about punctuation — restrain yourself. Tempting as it may be, don’t overpunctuate. Why?????? Because I said so!!!!!!!!!
4. Go easy on the acronyms
FYI, BTW, LOL, 4ever— whether new or old standbys, acronyms like these are easy to understand. Others are not (unless you’re younger than 20, in which case your entire email might be in acronyms):
- SFAIAA — so far as I am aware
- IYKWIM — if you know what I mean
- POOF — goodbye
If you must use acronyms, do so sparingly, choosing those that are most appropriate for your audience.
5. Don’t Shout
Be careful how you use capital letters. While it’s okay to use caps at the beginning of sentences or with abbreviations like U.S., it is not okay to write whole or partial sentences in all caps. This is called shouting and it’s considered one of the rudest things you can do on the Internet.
Should you need to emphasize a single word, caps are admissible. Example: “As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I will NOT be responsible for your negligence.” But even in this case, you have other choices. You can use *not* or not, or type not in a different color.
While we’re on the subject of rude behavior …
- Don’t flame anyone by sending abusive letters.
- Don’t start arguments, criticize someone’s spelling or circulate unsuitable attachments (e.g., porno).
- Don’t forward chain letters or anything libelous, racist, sexist or otherwise objectionable.
- Don’t label emails “urgent” or “high priority” if they are not.
7. Be circumspect
Each day we hear of private emails being made public, inadvertently or maliciously. To protect yourself, as well as others, don’t put into writing anything you wouldn’t want circulated.
8. Choose your subject
Writing an attention-grabbing subject line will be one of your greatest challenges. You’ve got just a few words to convince recipients your email is both legitimate and worthy of being opened. Be too clever or make ridiculous claims, and you’ll be dismissed as spam. Be too dry or vague, and you’ll be overlooked.
How do you garner attention? One way is to jog a recipient’s memory. Say, for example, you want to contact a woman you met at a Chamber of Commerce function. You might write, “We met at Chamber” or “Chamber follow-up.” Say, as another example, you were given a sales referral and were emailing this person for the first time. You could say: “John Smith suggested we meet” or simply, “John Smith.” Another option is to mention your specific product — “Acme 2007 model.” If the recipient has any interest in it, he or she will open your email to learn more.
9. Lighten up
All of us have a love-hate relationship with attachments. They can be informative and/or pointless, funny and/or lame. Accordingly, be careful when sending them. Assume no one wants them, which is why, ideally, you should ask permission before sending one. You’d be surprised how many people will say yes when given the choice.
Should you opt not to ask ahead of time, at least do one of the following:
- Let recipients know what’s in each attachment and the programs in which they were created
- Provide links to your Web site, where recipients can view for themselves the attachments (as well as the rest of your site)
10. Repeat yourself
Should you find yourself making the same pitch or answering the same questions over and over again in your emails, write some stock answers, store them in your word processing program and then cut and past them into your new emails. Doing so will save you time and energy. But don’t forget to personalize your correspondence in some way. One of the easiest ways is to put a person’s name in the salutation.
11. Keep it to yourself
Sorry, but as great a writer as you are, not everyone is clamoring for your work. Therefore, resist the temptation to cc every life form on the planet. Your emails should be sent on an as-needed basis. Ditto for bcc’s.
12. Sign your work
Before you send your masterpiece out into the universe, affix your signature. You do this via a signature line that includes your name, title and company, and contact information. If you’re feeling particularly creative, throw in your company’s motto or an inspirational quotation. Your signature should not exceed four to five lines. You’re not writing a brochure after all, just letting the world know how wonderful you are. How true, how true!
Beth Mende Conny, WriteDirections.com