Writing a professional email is an important skill to master. Emails are the most common form of communication at work, especially given how common remote working is.
But writing a professional email is not as simple as writing down what you would say in a conversation.
Everyone at some point has had their email misinterpreted. You probably have also misinterpreted someone else’s email. That is because without intonation, body language, and facial expressions it is much harder to communicate clearly.
Writing professional emails takes practice. But it also requires a basic foundation for written communication. Here are tips to improve how you write your professional emails.
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Keep professional emails short
First, assess whether your subject is one that can be covered quickly.
People get a lot of emails. Attention span wanes quickly when you open up an email and see a wall of text.
Additionally, consider that many people read emails between meetings or breaks between other work. If your recipient has other matters to attend to in a few minutes and they see your email is very long, they will likely close it. Many times the intent is to read it later.
But who is motivated to go back and read an extremely long email later?
Short, concise, and to-the-point emails are most efficient. If your topic needs a lot of background or explanation, discuss it on the phone or at a meeting instead of in an email.
My general recommendation is to keep the majority of your emails around 200 words or less.
Know when an email is not appropriate
There are situations when an email is not the best form of communication.
As outlined above, if you cannot concisely cover your topic then an email is probably not the best form of communication. Consider setting up a meeting instead.
Or if it is a singular recipient, call or walk over to have a quick conversation. Provide them the background needed prior to sending the email. This will allow you to keep your email short and actionable.
This approach will also increase the likelihood that the action you desire (e.g. feedback, review of a document, etc.) will occur. Rather than someone opening a long email, scanning it, and then deciding they will “get to it later’.
Another time an email may not be appropriate is due to sensitive issues- both from a legal and emotional perspective. Remember how anything put out on the internet will stay there forever? The same is true for emails.
Emails are forever. They are traceable.
It is important to treat emails as information that is put on a permanent record. Do not treat professional emails as a mode of private communication, because it is not.
Don’t use emails for emotional topics.
Remember, emails lack the intonation, body language, and facial expressions that you can leverage in face to face conversations. So although it may be easier or less uncomfortable to email something that is difficult to talk about in person, you shouldn’t do it.
It is impersonal and easily misinterpreted. Conflict is healthy and important (if managed appropriately), don’t fear it. Conflict resolution should always occur in a live discussion.
For the same reasons, don’t use emails to provide negative feedback. Feedback, both positive and negative, is important. But it is also best to be communicated in-person.
The only exception is an email providing positive feedback to the manager of an employee. These types of emails ARE good to send because they can easily be shared with leadership/HR and used during an annual review.
I also avoid emails when the topic is a sensitive decision point.
If you work in a particularly litigious industry (which many are these days), consider that your email can be used subpoenaed one day. Or, if you work in a regulated industry your emails can be subject to review by regulatory bodies.
Therefore, if the email is to discuss various ideas around a topic or decision that could potentially be sensitive it is best had in person.
When in doubt, don’t put it in an email.
Know your audience
So you’re ready to write your email.
First things first- are you emailing a co-worker buddy or your CEO? Is your email to one person or 10?
The audience for your email will change the tone with which you write your email. If you are emailing one co-worker who also happens to be a friend, you can certainly take a less formal, friendly approach. No problem.
If you are emailing a co-worker with whom you have strictly a professional relationship (with the occasional nicety and small talk), you want to take a slightly more formal approach.
If you are emailing an external client or customer who you do not know well, you want to be formal.
When you are emailing a group of people, you always want to take a tone that you would take if you were to individually email the person you know the least on your email list.
So before you even start to write your email, stop and take a moment to consider your audience. It will shape the tone of your email.
Use language that is assertive
You should always strive to project confidence in your communications, and this includes in a professional email.
It is important to get comfortable with sounding assertive. The most common phrases I see people fall back on in emails are “I believe that…” and “I think that…”.
These phrases project uncertainty and insecurity. A reader interprets these phrases as non-concrete. That the writer is looking for affirmation of their opinions.
Scan your email for weak language. Other red flags to look out for are:
- “just” (e.g. “I just want to confirm”)
- “sorry” (e.g. “sorry to bother you again”)
- “I hope” (e.g. “I hope we can get aligned”
- “If you could” (e.g. “If you could help”)
- “I might” (e.g. “I might do this”)
Instead, try phrases such as:
- “It’s important to”
- “I need confirmation that”
- “My position is that”
- “I will do”
- “I need guidance on”
Simple corrections to make your language sound assertive and confident will allow your email and call to action to command more respect.
Avoid passive-aggressive statements in a professional email
We all get frustrated with people that are non-responsive to emails. Or people that may not understand the urgency on our call to action in a previous email. But remember, you need to always be in a neutral state of mind when writing your email.
Never write an email if you have fresh emotions such as anger or frustration.
Step away, even if only for a few minutes. Preferably for a few hours. Come back to the email later in a neutral state of mind.
When you begin writing an email, remember to be careful and not use passive-aggressive statements. Here are some common ones I see, and how a reader interprets them.
- “Any updates on this?” or “A friendly reminder” reads as “What is taking you so long?”
- “I think there is a misunderstanding” or “I may have misunderstood” reads as “You’re wrong”
- “As I said earlier” or “Per my earlier email” reads as “You didn’t read what I told you before”
Be direct with your communication.
If you are following up on a requested action, state that “I’d like to follow up on…”
If there is a misunderstanding or conflict, request to set up some time to discuss live to find a resolution. Don’t resolve it in email.
If you start feeling that you need to reinforce points from previous emails, it’s a sign that you need to have a live discussion because something is getting lost in translation.
People pick up on passive-aggressive comments, even if subconsciously. They will never help you develop strong working relationships.
Use proper grammar and professional language
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t use slang. Don’t use internet acronyms (e.g. LOL, LMAO, IDK).
Make sure you are using proper grammar.
If you struggle with grammar (it’s OK!), it’s a skill that you just need to work on.
I really like Grammarly, and would recommend adding the extension to your browser. It will correct your grammar for everything you type, as well as helping with proof-reading. I use it every day!
Use lists and bullet points
Remember, we are trying to keep the professional email short so that it helps with readability.
If you need to provide an outline or background information that requires more than a couple of sentences, try to break it down into bullet points. Not only will this shorten your email, but it will greatly improve readability.
People love lists and bullet points because they are easier to scan than reading a block of text. White space is your friend.
So next time you are outlining your position is because of XYZ use this instead:
“I am in agreement with this position because:
Request some sort of action from the recipient(s)
Your email should always request a call to action from the reader. Otherwise, you may never know the result of the email. Your expected result from an email should never be silence.
Try to include your call to action towards the beginning of the email.
If you are writing an email to ask for a review of a document, your call to action should be the second sentence. For example:
“I am attaching document X to this email. Please provide feedback by Monday at noon”
You can then go on to provide a few sentences of background on the document, if necessary. Including the call to action at the beginning of the email will force this to be the forefront thought in the reader’s mind.
As you can see above, I also included a deadline.
For emails with specific action items, it’s critical to include a deadline.
Deadlines stick in peoples’ minds and they will (usually) work to meet it. It will also give you a good opportunity to follow up on your email when it is getting close to the deadline or if it is past the deadline.
If you are seeking people’s opinions on a topic, start your email with “I’d like feedback on…”
Other calls to action can be:
- “Please confirm that...”
- “Please provide…”
- “I am requesting…”
Open and close your email appropriately
Personally, I don’t get overly formal in addressing individuals within my organization.
For example, I don’t address an email to my CEO differently from a co-worker I’m not overly familiar with. I address both respectfully. They are both individuals that command my respect. So my email to either would start with “Hello X,”
Most of my emails internally just start with “Hi X,” to individuals that I work with closely.
For external clients or customers, extra formality is appropriate if you are not familiar with them. “Dear X,”
Include a closer in your email as well. Mine is usually “Thank you,” or “Thanks,” depending on how acquainted I am with the audience. “Sincerely,” or “Best Regards,” can be used for more formal situations with external clients.
Make sure you have an email signature set in your client.
It should include your email signature (name, title, company, address, phone #) on the first email of each new thread.
It is not necessary to include your signature on every single email response, but some people do.
Write a descriptive subject line
One of the last things you should write is your subject line.
Just like you were taught in school to save writing your introduction for last, save writing your subject line for last. That way you have a clear understanding of the email contents in order to distill it into a concise subject line.
The subject line should allow the reader to understand the topic of the email without opening it.
Typically, I like including either the project or the company objective as the first words in the email, followed a more specific descriptor of the email.
“[Project Name] - Draft Project Proposal”
This makes it clear that the email will provide the project proposal for review.
Proofread. Proofread again.
You should proofread every email you write AT LEAST once. Even if you are in a hurry.
Depending on your audience, I’d recommend proofreading it multiple times. Small mistakes like typos in people’s names can reflect very poorly on you. A person’s name is the most important thing to their identity...don’t make a silly mistake.
Take the time to ensure you are sending a well written, error-free email.
Those are my tips on how to write a professional email that garners respect and result in action from others.
Did you have a memorable experience with a professional email? Good or bad, share it below!
Check out some of these other useful posts:
How to Write a Professional Email