The following post was first run in Spring 2009, but based on comments from faculty, staff, and students, I thought maybe a re-run with a few additions would be a good idea.
In today’s highly techno-focused culture, we are becoming accustomed to the speed and ease of sending instant messages or texts as a way of communicating with others. And, the use of emails in professional settings is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, the style of writing often utilized in instant/text messaging seems to be gradually sliding into workplace/academic email messages, to the detriment of the sender’s professional image. In a professional setting, appropriate emails should be understood to be more similar to letters than text messages, and even quick/short emails should be more like a professional memo than a text. In the post that follows, I provide some basic tips to help prevent your workplace/academic emails from creating problems with your self-presentation or damaging your professional relationships.
- Utilize the subject line wisely. A well-written subject line encapsulates the purpose of the message and will help the reader move it to the appropriate location on the “to do” list. Subject lines like “Hi” or “: )” are inappropriate and may cost you in additional response time.
- Greetings/Salutations are important. Just like in a letter, starting off on the right foot is a good idea. Simply beginning your email with a sentence can seem abrupt, demanding, or downright rude. Consider how you would address that person if you were writing a letter and use that format (e.g. “Dear Professor Rowan; Greetings, Dr. Simone; Hello, Mr. Betts). For students, if you do not know the official status of your faculty member, it’s a good idea to take a moment or two to look it up (use Dr. for those with a Ph.D. and Professor for those without, unless they have asked you otherwise). If looking it up doesn’t work, Professor is likely a better choice than Mr., Ms., or Mrs.
- Watch your grammar/spelling/style. While writing an email is not as formal as writing a paper, errors can both detract from perceptions of the writer and make it more difficult for the reader to understand the message. Use spell check, but don’t count on it to catch everything. You need to proofread as well. Common errors include mixing up homophones (their/there, it’s/its), sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and words used incorrectly.
- Keep your email on track. Most people receive many workplace emails each day and if they have to wade through a long narrative or many questions about issues unrelated to the point of the email, you are less likely to get a response to what you really need.
- Make your request/need/point clearly. Don’t expect the reader to guess what it is you are trying to say or asking. Remember, this should be like a professional letter. If you are asking for a solution to a particular issue, and you have one in mind, indicate it. For example, if you aren’t able to be in class on Tuesday, don’t write your professor and say, “I can’t be in class on Tuesday, ok?” Indicate a particular plan of action and ask politely if it is appropriate: “I cannot attend class on Tuesday due to a funeral. I would like to submit my assignment on Tuesday morning, by 8 a.m., via email. Would that be appropriate?”
- Keep your tone appropriate to the relationship and context of the message. Do not be rude, overly disclosive, or excessively emotional simply because it is an email. “Please” and “thank you” are still polite terms and should be used. Profanity of any sort is not appropriate.
- Avoid “text speak.” LOL, G2G, TTYL, B4, etc. are not appropriate for professional emails.
- Remember that emails create an electronic record of your conversation. Do not put material in an email that you do not wish to have retained by the receiver.
- Provide contact information, in case the reply is one that cannot easily be emailed.
- End with a fitting farewell and a “signature.” Whatever farewell you might use for a letter to the same person (”Sincerely,” “All the best,” “Have a lovely semester”) is fine. It doesn’t have to be completely stodgy, but it shouldn’t be “later dude” either.
- Double check your distribution list before you hit send. Many people have experienced real problems from emails inadvertently set to “reply all.” It’s a good idea to send a copy of the message to yourself, if it is particularly important. This helps you confirm that it went through and provides an easily accessible reminder of when you sent the message.
By following these basic tips, you can create workplace/academic emails that get your messages attended to and leave the reader with a positive impression of you as a professional worth respect.