Email revolutionized the world of business communications, giving you the ability to send messages and documents instantly to different people all over the world. This way of communicating, however, has also become a common way to interact socially, leading to a blurring of the fine line between corporate and personal writing. How should you write business emails and how can you best avoid problems?
Business Emails Need Different Writing Skills
You may not think that you have a problem to solve here. If you regularly use personal mail to communicate with friends and family, then you may feel that you know how to write for this medium already. Business emails are corporate documents, however, and should be written in a language appropriate to this environment. What you say and how you say it matters.
How to Structure Work Emails
Every email you send at work should have a purpose. You may be sending a quick internal message to remind colleagues of a meeting; you may be sending business-critical information to a customer. Your writing should always be concise and laid out in a logical order so that the recipient gets the message. Tell them why you are writing, say what you need to say, give a call to action if appropriate and then sign off.
The Art of Business Conversation in Emails
You do not have to use formal business language in every email you send. This can sometimes be as inappropriate as being too informal. You will be having a business conversation here, often with people with whom you have a relationship. It helps to take your cue from the emails they send you. If a customer begins every message with ‘Dear Mr Soandso’, then your cue is to use Dear as a greeting. If they open with a Hi or a Hey, then you can be a little more informal too.
But, do remember that your words represent your company. You can inject personality, be friendly and chat if your relationship is at that level, but you should always be professional. Jokes, pictures and attachments are best kept to social emailing. Keep in mind that it’s better to work from formal to informal than to be forced back because you got too friendly too soon. In business writing, formality is still viewed by many as a sign of respect.
Email Spelling and Grammar Issues
Just because email can use a more informal writing style, don’t assume that you can slack off on the basics. You and your business may be perceived negatively if you misspell words or use incorrect grammar. Don’t rely on automated checkers as they won’t pick up some simple glaring errors such as their/there, two/too and it’s/its. Learn what you need to know or have someone double-check what you write.
The easiest way to get a message across in an email is to be straightforward, especially if you are dealing with people overseas. Telling a contact who does not have English as a first language that your new product adds innovative benefits is very different to saying that it pushes the envelope, for example. You don’t want your contact to have to look up what you have written to understand what you are trying to say. You don’t want to leave them bemused, amused or confused.
Tone and Meaning in Business Email
Compared to face-to-face meetings and phone conversations, the written word cannot always reproduce tone and meaning. If you can’t see the face or hear the voice of the person at the other end of your business conversation, you can’t read them 100% accurately. This works the other way, so be careful of your language and tone. A simple rebuttal, worded too strongly, can come across as criticism or defensiveness. A throwaway one-liner may not read like a joke on the page. Think about what you are saying, how well you know the reader and how they are likely to react.
Acceptable Use Policies for Company Email Accounts
You should make sure to check if your employer has a policy that dictates how you should be using your company email account. Although these are often weighted towards general usage, some will include clauses that could affect what you write. You may not, for example, be allowed to copy or refer to confidential information when communicating outside of your company, or you may not be supposed to circulate certain types of material.
Finally, it is also worth considering how appropriate an email can be in certain situations. Sometimes, you shouldn’t just be thinking about how you write it but whether it should be sent. It is often wise, for example, to avoid this type of communication for sensitive and confidential issues that might be better handled by a meeting or phone call.