Email is a ubiquitous office tool. In many business relationships it has replaced all other means of communications: mail, phone and certainly face-to-face meetings. With its rise to power, you must also recognize that as you write, so will you be judged.
“Email has not only changed the way we do business, it has also begun to define how we are viewed as professionals and people,” says Janis Fisher Chan, author of E-Mail: A Write It Well Guide (Write It Well, 2005). “It’s not uncommon to have only an email relationship with certain colleagues. The words we write are very real representations of our companies and ourselves. We must make sure that our email is sending the right messages about us.”
Chan has a number of pointers that can help you make the most of your emails:
1. Get to the point fast. In journalism, the first paragraph of a newspaper article holds the kernel of the story; make it so with your email. Imagine, says Chan, that you have 15 seconds to shout out your message to someone before he goes through an airport security checkpoint. What would you say?
2. Make your subject line a headline. This second journalistic trick will help keep your email out of the trash. Be precise with your subject line; give your reader a reason to open your message. For example, instead of “Changes,” write “Health benefits to change next year.” Or, instead of “Dates,” put “Kickoff meeting—Dec. 2, 3 or 9?”
3. Keep it professional. Even if you are writing to a friend, you need to be on your best grammatical behavior. Emails often get forwarded without your knowledge. “Resist the temptation to be sloppy or overly casual. You never know who will end up seeing your email,” says Chan.
4. Know when not to email. If the subject matter is confidential or sensitive, it’s best to skip cyberspace when conveying it. The guide, says Chan, is to ask yourself: “What might happen if someone published this in the newspaper?” Humor is also off limits. Remember, what’s funny to you may offend others.
And while grooming your outgoing missives is an important business move, so is controlling your email habit. That means turning off your “You’ve Got Mail” signal and designating a specific time to look at and answer your email. Chan also warns not to check email as a boredom breaker. Instead, go for a walk, get a cup of coffee—take a real break if that’s what you need.