Is it too late to wish you all a Happy New Year?
OK. It’s been a while. There, I’ve said it. I started another writing gig in late December, and I have been remiss about updating this blog. And I am sorry. On the plus side, I get lots of opportunity these days to put my own words of wisdom into practice. (But, obviously, I am not above punning….)
So – Ahem – to review, here are my four rules for writing professional, business-like emails:
- Be Polite
- Be Professional
- Be Clear
- Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)
Before the holidays, I got through the first two, so I’ll focus this blog on the third – Be Clear!
Clarity in emails, like clarity in crystal-ware, is a balance of ingredients. Lead crystal, also known as “flint glass,” is made up of silica and lead; traditionally, in fact, it was 24% lead oxide (which gives flint glass its refractive qualities but is not so good for the human nervous system). Lead crystal is still beautiful to look at. Waterford’s lead crystal chandeliers glitter ever on in Westminster Abby, and Waterford lead-crystal panels comprise the famous New Year’s Eve Ball in Times Square (see how I snuck that in there!). Lead-free crystal is also a balancing act, with various alternative oxides (potassium, zinc or barium) replacing the lead oxide.
Clarity in business emails comes from balancing straight-forwardness (for lack of a better word) with brevity – with a little bit of good organization and audience sensitivity thrown in. In fact, a straight-forward organization of your email is a good place to start. Always start with your ask and/or an introduction to your attachment. That is, lead (pronounce it “leed” in this sentence!) with your question or request or – if you are responding to another email – lead with your response and/or a brief phrase/sentence that describes your attachment.
Recently, a friend of mine was awkwardly caught up in a job-referral situation in which she wanted to ask a complete stranger for a job interview, having been referred to that stranger by a manager who had rejected her job application at his company (though he did so with great heart and positive feedback). She asked me to look at her email, which opened with a long complex sentence about her job qualifications. (For an example of a long, complex sentence, look at the first sentence in this paragraph!) She followed that with her question, requesting an interview.
I advised her to start the email with her question (since the email from the mutual acquaintance was attached anyway) and to follow that question with two sentences created from the overly complex sentence she had originally started with. Wallah! She secured the job interview and went on to win the job. Hurray! OK, her success probably can’t be solely attributed to her revised email. But I like to think I helped.
If your opening sentence (with your question/request or response/attachment-description) needs more context, then go ahead and provide it – but in a separate paragraph. You can even label that paragraph with the heading “Background,” “Clarification” or “Additional Information.” Here’s where audience sensitivity comes in. Most of the time, your reader will be interested only in (and read no further than) your ask or response. However, sometimes if – like me – they are overwhelmed with email and might have no clue what you are talking about, they need to understand the circumstances that compelled you to write the email. This is particularly true if you are rejecting a proposal or idea.
The idea here is avoid leaving the reader to guess about what you mean (“What the…?”) – or to guess about where you stand. Give him/her another sentence or three (depending on the situation) that provides some context for your opening phrase/sentence. Keep it brief, but be sensitive.
Example: How about lunch on Friday? I have news to share!
Response: Can we push to Monday? Have a big project due 1pm Friday.
While this simple exchange would have been fine minus the second sentences in each, the expanded versions let each recipient know that the relationship valued (well, relatively speaking). Plus it sets up at least two topics of conversation for the ensuing lunch.
Which brings me to the fact that I am very hungry. OK, too much information – including too much information in an email – is never a good thing. So always circle back to the previous rules – be polite and, above all, be professional. No need for my email pals to know that my stomach is grumbling. I’ll spare them (but not you!) that detail.
Before I go on to my dinner (and sipping wine from a crystal decanter!), I’ll remind you that I have one more business email rule to define – Follow up!