Graphic that shows the components that make up an email

Polishing Professional Email Communication

By Cathy Planchart, Senior Project Manager

When I first started sending emails for work 20+ years ago, there was a lot of advice about email etiquette, and what to do and not do when writing emails. For example, don’t type in ALL CAPS because it can be interpreted as shouting at the recipient. Also, using decorative background stationery and fancy fonts was discouraged because a standard font (e.g., Arial) in black on a white background is most readable and compatible with the various platforms and viewports where emails are viewed. Rarely do we see these faux pas today.

Email in the professional workplace is now standard and commonplace. In my current work role, I rely heavily on email to communicate with colleagues, vendors and clients. It is an especially critical communication channel since I work remotely, and my clients are scattered across the country. I cannot help but feel frustrated when I receive emails which could have been composed so much better.

So, let’s up our game! When I write an email, I have three goals. I want the recipient to be able to easily read, comprehend and respond to my email. Because we rely on email communication to get our jobs done, it is important to get it right the first time to maximize work efficiency. Investing some time upfront saves time later when you receive a clear and timely response.

Construct for easy reading:

  1. Make your subject line short and meaningful.
    • The most effective email subject lines are 6-10 words or 50 or fewer characters.
    • Use the subject line to reference the purpose or topic of the email. For example, “For review,” or to reference the content (“Meeting agenda”), or, if you are seeking information, “Request for….”
    • If your email is a request, consider including a due date in the subject line.
    • Be sure your subject line captures the reader’s attention, so they open, read and respond to your message.
  2. In the body of the email, avoid writing long run-on paragraphs because they can be difficult to read and comprehend.
    • Start each sentence at the left margin.
    • Insert line breaks as appropriate to create whitespace. This will allow the message to “breathe” and be more inviting to the reader. 
    • Use bullet points or numbering to give the reader important information quickly or if there are several items which need to be addressed.
    • Add headlines to introduce different topics.
  3. If you need to address multiple topics, it may be best to send a separate email for each one.
  4. Bottom line, give thought to your subject line and construct your message so it is scannable.

Increase comprehension of content:

  1. Make sure your message is complete and answers the following questions:
    1. Who? (The person/people to whom you are sending the email.)
    2. What? (This most likely is the topic introduced in the subject line and reiterated at the start of the message.)
    3. Why are you communicating? Your message may be simply informational, you may be requesting information, or you may be collaborating on work in progress.
    4. Where? This can refer the reader to where additional information can be found. Perhaps there is a relevant attachment or a link.
    5. How? Explain the best way for the recipient to respond. It could be replying to the email, making a phone call, sending a message in Teams, etc.
    6. When? If you need a response, feedback, or deliverable, provide the recipient with a deadline to set clear expectations.  
  2. Include a screen grab or image to enhance message clarity. Remember the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? 
  3. To aid message comprehension, consider putting key points in bold type, color text, or highlighting. This may include questions needing answers, deadlines, etc.
  4. Reread your email to be sure it is correct and avoids obvious typos and poor grammar. In your email system settings, you can also enable automatic spelling and grammar check.
  5. Consider reading your email out loud to be sure it is clear and organized and the recipient can understand the message you are trying to convey.
  6. Regarding tone, aim for professional, but friendly.
  7. If it is an important email, consider having a colleague review it.
  8. Keep your message as concise as possible, so it can be read, comprehended, and responded to quickly.
  9. If you have a lot of information to convey, consider putting the information in a separate document and attaching the document to a brief email.

Receive a clear and timely response:

  1. Start your email with a greeting such as “Dear Sally,” or “Hi team,” when there are numerous people receiving the email directly or being CC’ed. Doing so makes it clear who needs to pay attention to the email and respond.
  2. Keep the needs of your audience [recipient(s)] top of mind and write in a caring, kind, and gentle way.
  3. Be sure to say “please” and “thank you.” These pleasantries have magical powers, creating feelings of happiness and appreciation. Putting some basic manners (and a little heart) into our communications goes a long way to getting a complete, timely and cordial response.
  4. Where possible, phrase questions so a simple “yes” or “no” answer is all that is required.
  5. If you want the person to call you, then include your phone number with the request. Don’t make them hunt for your phone number in your email signature or elsewhere.

When you receive a clear and timely response, it feels like a major win. Right?!

Now, let’s switch sides. You’ve become a pro at crafting emails that are easy to read, comprehend and respond to. But how are your skills when it comes to responding to emails from others? Many of the same pointers outlined earlier apply to email responses as well. Here are a few more suggestions to help you up your game when responding to emails.

Be the best responder:

  • First, carefully choose whether to “reply” or “reply all.” Be thoughtful of those who are bombarded with countless emails daily. For example, if you are simply saying “thank you” to the sender, there may be no need to thank all those who were CC’ed.
  • Use complete sentences. Even when you can simply reply “yes,” for clarity, finish the sentence by reiterating the question as a statement.
  • When replying to an email, be sure to respond to each specific comment/question provided by the sender. A clear and easy way to do this is to click on “reply” then tell the recipient your responses are in red below. Scroll down to their email, change your text color to red and type your response next to each comment/question.
  • Keep your response focused on the current topic. Don’t introduce a new topic in an old email thread. If you need to switch topics, it may be advisable to start a new email specific to the new topic, which can help eliminate confusion.
  • When forwarding an email message, include a brief note to the recipient explaining why you are sharing the message with them and any action they need to take.

As you can see, there are so many things that go into writing an effective email we aren’t going to get it right every time. For example, just today, I forgot to attach a document to an email and left out a recipient. It happens—we are only human. However, if we can’t attain perfection, let’s at least make some progress in that direction.

Most importantly, focus on being kind to your email recipients. Keep the needs of your audience top of mind. Make it easy for them to understand and absorb what you are communicating and respond. Research has shown that poor business communications (be it with internal colleagues, vendors, clients or prospects) negatively affect a company’s bottom line. So, let’s up our game for the benefit of all!

MKP communications inc. is a New-York based marketing communications agency specializing in merger/change communications for the financial services industry.