Email Etiquette is a key concept for the success of any business or business professional. It can make a major difference in how others perceive you, or your business. Successful individuals, groups, or companies will invest some time and effort into writing with proper Email Etiquette. But what exactly is proper Email Etiquette?
As a society, we’ve pretty well defined the rules of etiquette in most situations, and that applies to most business situations as well. We all know how to behave in an office setting: which behavior is acceptable and which is not. We all understand telephone etiquette: how to answer, what to say. We all know how to behave in a business meeting: shake hands, make eye contact, provide introductions. We also know the etiquette of dress code: formal, business casual, casual; depending on the situation. What we haven’t done so well as a society is to clearly define and consistently follow the rules of Email Etiquette.
This is rather astounding, considering what a major part email plays in our lives, particularly our professional lives. For as much as we use email, we really aren’t using it in the “proper” way. The example of a dress code is a good one. In a lot of ways, you can think of your emails as your electronic dress code. It’s not just what you write, it’s also how you write it. Just like how you wouldn’t go to an important business meeting wearing sloppy, poorly fitting, or inappropriate clothing, you shouldn’t write to a business associate in a sloppy, poorly suited, or inappropriate manner. After all, just as your clothing reflects your professionalism, so should your writing. In many cases, the only impression someone may have of you will come from your emails.
How then do we exercise proper Email Etiquette? What are the tricks to writing emails that convey a positive impression? How do we know for sure that our emails are “proper and polite” before clicking the ‘send’ button? This, like anything else, takes time and practice, along with some effort, and a set of standards. The exact rules of Email Etiquette can vary somewhat by individual and organization, and like all other rules of etiquette will depend on the situation, but broadly speaking, Email Etiquette has five major components that will remain constant.
First, all emails you send should convey your intent clearly and concisely. Your audience should have absolutely no doubt about the message they are supposed to receive from reading your email. Further, your email should be direct and to the point. Your email is likely competing for attention with dozens of other priorities, and probably hundreds of other emails. Don’t disrespect the recipient by wasting their time with unnecessary words and sentences. Think to yourself, ‘what is the most important thing I want my audience to know once they’ve read this email’ and lead with that. Make sure to cover this point within the first two or three sentences. A strong subject line helps with this too.
Second, ask two important questions: Does this email reflect both me/my organization in a positive way? Does this email show the recipient that I value their relationship to me/my organization (whatever that happens to be?)If the answer to either of these questions is no, then your email probably doesn’t pass the etiquette test, and you might want find a way to rewrite it. Remember, proper etiquette is all about showing respect for both other individuals and for a situation. When you send an email, you are asking for a person’s time and attention, and both of these are often in short supply. Your email then should reflect the idea that you are respecting your recipient’s valuable time, and furthering your relationship in some meaningful way.
Third, develop and follow a set of email standards. These can be applied enterprise-wide or created just for your own personal sake. With these standards, define the dos and don’ts: what should I do every time I write an email, and what should I never do any time I write an email. This can help to avoid many common Email Etiquette mistakes. Use these standards to create a consistent font, format, and flow that will apply to every email. Create also a subject line standard. Not only will this help to clarify your message, but it will also help your emails to develop a consistent ‘brand.’
Fourth, develop and use a consistent ‘tone of voice.’ The exact nature of your tone will depend on the nature of your organization and/or your own individual preferences, but whatever form it takes, the tone, like the standards, should be applied consistently. Should my email be casual and direct, or should it come across more warm and friendly? Should we always keep it formal, or can we allow for a more conversational tone? Setting a standard tone gives your emails a consistent personality, which can help to further develop relationships, and, like the standards, help with brand consistency.
Fifth and finally, never forget that it’s sometimes best to just pick up the phone. It can be difficult to express certain thoughts or feelings in an email. Empathy, for example, can be very challenging to express in the written form. Also, some explanations require more than just a few sentences. Email isn’t always the best medium for these. If your email is on its tenth paragraph, that’s probably a good indicator that it’s time to make a phone call instead. You might also sense frustration or lack of understanding in a written response. In that case, a verbal conversation might be beneficial. There’s no sense in engaging in an endless written back and forth when you can have a short conversation instead. You can always send a follow-up email afterward for summary and tracking purposes. Remember too that an email is most likely expecting an email response (unless they have specifically requested a phone call instead.) That does not mean, however, that you can’t send an email asking for a verbal conversation, including the best time and number to reach you.
It is estimated that over two-hundred-billion emails are sent every single day. Most of these are probably poorly written, and a lot of those are likely business emails. For as much as we use email in today’s business world, it is truly remarkable how little we think about what we’ve written before we send it. As we well know, being careless with email can lead to a lot of trouble. Engaging in proper Email Etiquette can help to make sure that both you and your organization avoid this problem.
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