Remember when all formal correspondence started with To Whom It May Concern? These days, if you receive an email with that as the opener, you’re more likely to send it straight to the trash. The days of proper letters have come to an end, but that doesn’t mean you should use loose, casual language and expect to get what you want. A formal email is not the same as an effective email, but combining the power of the two gives you a better chance of getting the reply you desire.
We’ve written about slang in business communications before. While there are times when you can shape your language to meet the goal of your message (for example, marketing emails and business correspondence), there are some baseline rules every email should follow.
Let’s look at how to write an effective email. Then we’ll examine the right level of formality to include.
Confirm the Email Is Necessary
To get the most out of an email, make sure the reason for sending it is a good one. If what you’re asking for in the email could be accomplished in less time than it takes to write the note, then choose a different channel of communication – text message, phone call, or internal instant messaging system.
Grab the Recipient’s Attention
As with a newspaper headline, blog post, or tweet, you need to get the reader interested enough to click through. Your subject line should be specific to the contents of your email.
If you’re requesting the sales figures from the first quarter, put all of that in the subject line, for example, “Request for sales figures 1st quarter 2017.” Setting the recipient up with that context is more powerful than a subject line like “Sales figures.”
A clear, concise subject line will help cut down on the amount of information you need to include in the body of your email. Be descriptive in your subject line, but keep it short. Six to ten words is a good length since anything longer than that will get cut off, especially when viewed on a mobile device.
Once you’ve enticed the reader to open your message, make sure she keeps going. Creating an effective email message starts with the very first word. This article from Inc. suggests options for starting off strong (hint: a simple “Hi, [name]” goes a long way) and what to avoid.
Get to the Point and Stay on Topic
Assume the recipient is going to read your email on a tiny phone screen and will do so while multitasking. If the person opens your message and sees blocks of text, he’s liable to send it right to the trash. If he does bother to skim it, he may miss the point of the email altogether. Stick to one topic in your message, and make sure it corresponds directly to your subject line.
If you’re asking for first quarter sales data, don’t also mention the need to set up a meeting to kick off a new product launch. That’s a separate subject that deserves its own email. If you do have multiple pieces of information or a series of requests, play around with the formatting of your email to help break up the text. That could mean bullet points, bold text, and even sub-headlines.
Highlight Your Call to Action
If you’re interested in writing an effective email, we can assume you want the reader to take a certain action. For example, send the report by a certain time, or let you know if they want to attend a party, etc. For that reason, specify your call to action (CTA), much like you would in a marketing email.
Make sure the CTA doesn’t get lost in the rest of your message. Try to compose your email so that you’re starting with the request. If the message needs more information, you can follow with that. Using the first quarter sales reports example, after politely stating what you need and when, you can add a few more sentences about how you’d like it in PDF format, broken down by each product type.
Use the Right Formality
Now that we know what should go in the email and how to present that info, let’s look at how to make sure it’s professional enough, which simply means how it sounds. This is the easiest part of writing the email and can be summed up in a few points.
- Start with a personalized but friendly greeting. A simple “Hello, [person’s name]” is all you need.
- Don’t fawn over the person. If you’re writing to someone who’s unfamiliar with you, offer a line explaining why you’re reaching out to them specifically (for example, “Your informative guest post on marketingbestpractices.com caught my eye…”), but don’t waste space showering them with compliments.
- Avoid slang, unless it’s relevant to your industry. Anything your proofreading software flags is probably slang.
- Leave the emojis behind! A smiley face will in no way make your email more effective.
- Sign off with something brief and simple. Sincerely, Best, and Thanks will do the trick.
- Always use the simplest language and don’t be superfluous with details. A formal email does not mean you should put the recipient’s vocabulary skills to the test.
The last thing you should do with every email is proofread. A grammatical slip or punctuation error can damage all the work you’ve put in, so make sure you check everything over (and let us know where we can help). Now you’re ready to hit send!