Raise your hand if you have ever had to say "That is not what I meant to send!" after finishing up an email.
Email is a great tool that eliminates a lot of normal barriers to communication, such as interruption, appearance, volume, body language, and tone. For all the good it brings, the fact is, email is one of the most difficult forms of communication because you can't tell tone or body language—that is, some of those barriers actually help us, and communicating without them can be hard.
In a professional setting, email has become the cornerstone of communication. Now we communicate more often, across multiple digital channels, with more people than any other point in our lifetime, and that means we have even more opportunities to miscommunicate—especially without the help of body language or tone of voice. So to help navigate this terrain, here are some dos and don'ts for effective email communication.
Do: Write well-defined subject lines
We all receive a flood of emails rushing into our inbox every day, and let’s face it—usually it’s just a mess. From old subscriptions that we need to cancel to urgent emails, it can get out of control quickly, and you might even miss something important. A clear and descriptive subject line can differentiate your email from the pack and make you stand out to your reader. This happens to both internal company communication and messages sent out to your clients or vendors.
For example, if you’re sending a proposal to a client, be specific and write, “[Project Name] Proposal Is Attached.” Communicating to the recipient what the email contains from the outset will ensure clarity from the moment they receive it.
Do: Know your audience
Before you compose your email, take a step back and be mindful of the audience that you are addressing. Is this a prospective client? Is this a fellow co-worker? Is this a future employer? "Yo" isn’t always the best salutation in an email to a professional, whether it’s a client or your boss. Format your message from top to bottom to match the appropriate audience. This will help you to be clear in your messaging and represent your best self. This might seem like common sense to many but as Voltaire has written, “Common sense is not so common.”
Bonus tip: If you want to leave a simple thank you to a single person in an email chain, you don’t need to click “reply all” and copy the other 10 people. This can become counter-productive and bog down other inboxes. Nobody else needs to know how polite you are.
You’ve written your subject line and body copy, and you’ve attached the necessary documents. Before you check that to-do off your list and hit send, proofread it! Many mistakes in an email can be avoided if you comb through your email for spelling and grammatical errors. If you don’t proofread, you can be seen as sloppy, overly casual, or even amateurish if your email is full of mistakes. And once you’ve sent that email you can’t get it back.
A great tool to use if you are looking to catch mistakes in your email is Grammarly. This in-browser tool analyzes what you have written and gives feedback on your writing. It is a free extension, but it is highly recommended to go premium to access all the features that Grammarly provides so that you can continue to improve your writing skills.
Bonus tip: When sending an email to a client, think about getting another set of eyes to read through it. If you only occasionally send emails to a client and know someone who does it more regularly, asking for their insight before you send is valuable since they will know how to compose a message that is better tailored to the client.
Do: Know your tone
It can be challenging to recognize how you are being perceived in your emails to others. The important thing to remember here is to be personable but professional. Avoid using extreme statements (both positive and negative) in any professional emails. This can help you avoid situations in which your words can be misread. In navigating communication of an error with a client or a co-worker, composure is key.
Also recognize that humor is not always interpreted well via email. It can be hard to identify without the vocal tone to accompany it. While it might be fun to use colloquialisms and slang in your copy, it can come across as informal and impersonal. As the saying goes: “When in doubt, leave humor out.”
Do: Think carefully about length
Email length is a tricky route to maneuver. With keeping the approach personable but professional, it can be hard to know how much detail to cover in one email and what should be communicated through other channels. Since every email is different like a snowflake, we won’t go into character count. You don’t need to begin every email hoping they had a good (insert day of the week here). Unless you’re reaching out to someone to catch up, cutting through the unnecessary fluff is going to allow you to get down to business and get done what you need to get done.
If your email draft needs to include context from another email chain, resurface any references to previous emails or conversations. It can be time-consuming to look back at the chain to brush up on the context, but it is valuable to your recipient. As you are including these details, use the best judgment of your audience and what information is necessary for this email.
Bonus tip: TL;DR (that is, “too long; didn’t read”) summary lines are incredibly useful when you cannot get around a lengthy email send. Using TL;DR in your emails provides a short summation of what the email covers. This can be useful for clients or co-workers who don’t have the time to read the entire email or don’t need to know all of the details but can’t just be left altogether out of the loop.
Don’t: Let your email inbox grow
It’s easy. We have all done it. Allowing your virtual stack of unread inbox messages grow to immeasurable size can be a result of busyness and lack of organization. But the ever-filling inbox can quickly bury an important email you need to respond to. And failing to respond promptly makes you look unprofessional.
A good practice to use when sifting through the clutter is, “inbox zero.” It is defined by HubSpot as “ …the process of labeling, triaging, and organizing your email inbox with a system that allows you to reach and maintain zero unread emails awaiting reply in your inbox.”
In the article they outline best practices of how to properly manage your inbox and get to the zero you desire. If you want to read more, check out their article here.
Don’t: Be slow to respond
We’ve all faced the anxiety not knowing how to respond to an important email. Time moves fast, and so does the number of unread emails you collect. That one unanswered email that you meant to get to can easily get lost in the sea. Don't keep clients and your team waiting for timely responses to their questions and requests. If time to research an answer is holding you back from replying, responding back with an expected deadline is more effective and is an appropriate response.
Don’t: Overuse those exclamation points
I have been a critic of the overuse of exclamation points for quite some time. It’s fine to use them when you are speaking to clients or coworkers you know extremely well. However, when sending important information or speaking with a client you aren’t familiar with, stay away from the exclamation points. Abbreviations (LOL, IDK, etc.), emojis, and all CAPS are also in this category.
Don’t: Send emotional emails
Put those emotions to the side when sending an email. If you feel emotion guiding how you are writing your email, put your message into the “drafts” and review it later. Better responses will come once you are no longer upset and you have time to express yourself in a proper manner.
Bonus tip: Sometimes writing your draft in a separate app (a Word doc, Evernote, etc.) can be better than writing in the platform. Too many accidents have been made by accidental sends of an emotional email. It’s always better to mitigate that risk and record your frustrations somewhere else.
Don’t: Communicate everything through email
Not every problem can be solved through email. Client requests can be beyond your knowledge, messages can be unclear, and even when you try your hardest, your tone can be hard to read. From co-worker issues to troubleshooting with a client, taking the conversation offline and using different channels to communicate can sometimes be the best solution to the issues at hand.
But when email is the best—or only—option, be sure to follow these suggestions, and you’ll not only spare yourself the embarrassment of sending a bad email, you might just become the office’s email expert.
Ian is a Marketing Analyst at High Alpha, a venture studio that creates and funds B2B SaaS companies.
Feed your marketing mind and keep your skills sharp by opting into our weekly newsletter, packed with lessons we’ve learned firsthand. You won’t regret it.