How to Write the Best Email: A Style Guide in Etiquette
Mon, 21 Aug 2017, in Email
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Email is difficult to get right. We know. After all, we make software that manages email – dissecting the intricacies of spam filters and open rates on a daily basis.
There’s a lot of misconceptions floating around about how we should be writing our emails, though. Not just what subject line to use, but also how to introduce ourselves, how to start and end our conversations.
Read More: 6 Email Management Habits That Reduce Stress
That’s why we decided to compile a guide on writing the “perfect” onboarding, outage response, feature update or an apology email. But just like there’s a million ways to get your point across in person (and behaviors to consider), there’s a million ways to do the same hair-pulling ordeal over email.
Is email formal communication?
There’s an argument in some circles that emails aren’t informal conversations but letters. Others consider them to be to-the-point discussions, with the purpose of conveying critical information in a logical, legible way. Still others consider emails to be both a letter and an instant message. With work environments becoming ever so casual, it isn’t hard to see why.
For example, personal email usually features phrases and slang that may be unacceptable in professional communication. So what should you do to minimize misunderstandings and avoid offending? What words should you use or avoid?
In this post, we’ll try to deconstruct the anatomy of a perfect email message, the do’s, don’ts, and how to properly get your point across:
- The subject line
- The message
- The salutation
- The introduction
- Make everything flow together
- Use personal pronouns & positive language
- Help them make a decision
- Cut out useless words and phrases
- The close
The subject line
Unlike face-to-face communication, we can’t read body language, tone of voice or judge the urgency of the message we’re about to receive. We go by the few words in the subject line instead.
Subject matter is something that compels the reader to open or disregard your message, so it’s imperative to get this one right. Otherwise, whatever you write in your email won’t matter too much (it won’t get read!)
Here are the things to keep in mind when coming up with a subject:
People like reading mail addressed to them. If you know something – anything about your client, use it to make your message stand out in their mailbox. Do you have something to hook into? Their name, location, past behavior? Try to include it somewhere in the subject line.
Why should your recipient care? List the most important points of your message. Just don’t be vague. Be to the point, even if it means two to three sentences. After all, there is no definite answer regarding headline length.
As another example, many bloggers complain about a lack of traffic to their articles. It’s an important issue – but only the right headline will draw the reader’s attention to what you’re saying.
So instead of saying,How to attract more readers to your blog:
try a different approach. Be more descriptive and don’t hold back. Being ultra-specific only reinforces click-throughs and increases the odds that they stick around.Tired of writing blog posts that nobody reads? Here’s an easy way to attract thousands of new readers to your blog:
Use action words
In real life, you may use your enthusiasm, tone of voice or body language to help you communicate. In email, words are all you have to grab and keep the attention of your audience.
Here’s a short list of “power words” that you can utilize in your titles to draw attention to the subject matter.
assault, beware, caution, crazy, danger, deadly, destroy, disaster, fail, meltdown, mistake, painful, panic, poor, pitfall, scary, risky, victim, vulnerable, warning
amazing, brave, breathtaking, daring, delightful, devoted, fearless, happy, magical, mind-blowing, spectacular, sensational, sweet, staggering, stunning, uplifting, wonderful
best, billion, cash, double, fortune, free, growth, luxurious, massive, money, prize, profit, rich, skyrocket, soaring, surge, triple
banned, behind the scenes, censored, controversial, cover-up, forbidden, forgotten, hidden, illegal, insider, private, provocative, secret, strange, tantalizing, thrilling, unpopular.
Play on emotions
While fear is a powerful emotion, it means little if it doesn’t affect us directly. We fear change, especially when things change for the worse without any warning. That’s why these subject lines are also very effective.
Here’s how to trick recipients into opening your emails:
- display urgency
Motivate users to take action now by pointing out the time window. Example: “Get 50% off if you order by Thursday, August 15th!”
- communicate loss
Tell readers exactly what they’ll lose if they don’t act. Is it a free month of subscription? Is it a free box of cookies or a chance to win the monthly draw?
- show scarcity
Is there any uniqueness to your offer? How about shortage of spaces? Some examples: “We won’t share this anywhere else.” “Only 3 seats left.”
It’s worth their time, money & it’s a legitimate answer to their need. Describe how and why this offer is going to work for them. Example: “How you can save $50 on your phone bill in three minutes”.
Leave them hanging
Another effective literary method (and this has a lot to do with psychology) is called “the hook” or “the cliffhanger”.
Since we need closure in our lives, stopping an idea (or sentence) midway keeps our interest high. This particular tactic is so effective, it’s frequently used in Hollywood and on TV, in shows and in news programs. That thought is kept there, lingering in our minds with questions about what we’re missing out on.
What about internal communication?
If not managed well, your internal emails can be just as problematic as a mountain of file folders that never gets sorted. Establishing categories in internal communication (be it subject lines, tags and appropriate filters) ensures each message gets the right amount of attention.
The Harvard Business Review published a handy list of keywords that military personnel use in their subject lines. An urgency level and ticket type (optional) can also be included:
- Info – For informational purposes only, no response or action required. Priority: Low, Type: Task
- Coord – Coordination by or with the recipient needed. Priority: Normal, Type: Task
- Approve – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient. Priority: High, Type: Task
- Action – Requires the recipient to take some action. Priority: Urgent, Type: Task
Offer a similar type of guideline for your employees to improve their productivity. They’ll able to minimize inbox clutter (or at least take it under control).
There is an inherent sense of urgency attached to emails. Your writing should be focused, understandable and relay crucial pieces of information effectively.
Remember, emails are read on mobile devices just as often as on desktops. Unlike a newspaper, you can’t stow an email into your bag and continue reading it at your leisure. It becomes imperative to keep your message readable and easily digestible – especially on small screens. With that in mind, let’s examine how to craft a perfect email message, piece by piece.
We’re strongly attached to our names and that extends to how we’re addressed. So if you address your recipient the wrong way, they may not want to read any further. What’s worse, it may affect their opinion of you and hurt your relationship.
Our recommendation? Use:Hi (first name),Hey (first name),
It’s friendly, safe and non-threatening – whether you know the person well or not.
Yet if you feel a formal tone is appropriate, it’s better to err on the safe side and go for the “Dear”. It likely won’t ever come down to it, but if you must address a high-ranking individual (civil servant, military, CEO), it’s best to avoid making mistakes.
Here’s a handy style guide to refer to:
When you’re addressing… Formal salutation One individual Dear Mr. (last name)
Dear Mrs. (last name)
Dear Miss (last name)
Dear Ms. (last name)
Married: No special title Dear Mr. and Mrs. (last name) Two individuals (men): No relationship specified Dear Mr. (last name) and Mr. (last name) Two individuals (women): No relationship specified Dear Mrs. (last name) and Miss (last name) Two individuals: Marital status and relationship not specified Dear Ms. (last name) and Mr. (last name) Two individuals (women): Marital status and relationship not specified Dear Ms. (last name) and Ms. (last name) Three or more individuals: Men Dear Messieurs / Sirs (last name) and (last name) and (last name) Three or more individuals: Married Women Dear Mesdames / Madames (last name) and (last name) and (last name) Three or more individuals: Unmarried women Dear Misses (last name) and (last name) and (last name) Three or more individuals: Same last name Dear Messieurs / Sirs, Mesdames / Madames, and Misses (last name) Married couple, same last name: Special title Dear Dr. and Mrs. (husband’s last name) Married couple, same last name: Wife has special title Dear Senator and Mr. (last name) Married couple, same last name: Both have special titles Dear Captain and Professor (last name) Married couple, different last names Dear Ms. (wife’s last name) and Mr. (husband’s last name) Married couple, hyphenated last name Dear Mr. and Mrs. (wife’s original last name followed by hyphen and husband’s last name) Organization Members (organization name) Dear Members (of)
What if you don’t know the recipient’s name? What if you’re sending out a mass email? Indeed it may be difficult to force rapport where none exists. Just don’t use generic introductions such as “To Whom It May Concern”. If it does not concern them, why should they bother reading?
Use these when addressing an unknown individual:
- Hello is a useful, polite, non threatening greeting.
- Hi there / Hey there is more casual and might work for short, informal “need to know” emails.
- Good morning / afternoon / eve is a little risky (it may be a different time of day by the time it reaches your recipient) but still considered polite.
If none of these sound natural or right, consider foregoing the salutation altogether. Instead, focus your energy on a powerful introduction.
An introduction is one or two sentences that describe the purpose of your message.
It’s one of the most important parts of your email, since a poorly written or irrelevant introduction will discourage your reader from sticking around until the end.
What’s the purpose of an introduction, anyway?
- to give readers an idea of what they are about to read
- to add real purpose to your message
- to build up intrigue or flow into the main body of the email
Start off with a mutual connection. “I had lunch with (someone) who mentioned you” or “I’ve been following your work at …”
If you can’t, fear not. Your introduction will depend on your message, your company culture and target audience. Why are you writing to them? Why are you taking time out of their day? Here are some generic ways you can pull your reader in:
Pique their curiosity
Curiosity is what killed the cat – and it’s something that works at the deepest psychological level, too. Make them wonder what they’re missing, whether it’s an opportunity, a valuable lesson or a good story.
Make a bold claim
Have something crazy to say? Want to challenge a commonly held belief? Start off with an outlandish idea that begs the question “no way, really?” After all, now they’ll really want to see if you can back up your claims.
Try a little quirkiness
Keeping the attention of your readers past the headline is tricky, but doable if you’re willing to be risque. This is useful if you want to get a reaction. “Does he really think that?” or “Is she about to do what he suggests?”
Relate to them
Empathy is contagious. That’s why statements like “I know how you feel. I felt the same way”, “what if you”, “imagine this” or “did you remember when” are so effective. The mind gets kicked into overdrive as the reader realizes this is about them and they better keep reading.
Amaze them with facts
Got some facts to share? It’s always fun to learn an interesting piece of data or discover how something works. This should also somehow tie into your message as you don’t want to mislead or deceive your audience.
Grab them with humor and idioms
A bit of lighthearted humor can help you build much-needed rapport with your audience. A good joke or a play on words can draw them in like a magnet – no pun intended! The tricky part may be tying this opening statement into what you’re about to say.
Make everything flow together
Finally the worst is over – you’ve pulled your reader in and have their full attention.
Not so fast.
Most people digest ideas by grouping them together and expecting a conclusion. Smart writers know how to keep their readers’ attention and keep them, well.. reading.
The answer to this is topic sentences. When starting a paragraph, have a sentence that is the subject of the main idea of the paragraph. This helps with clarity and makes reading subconsciously easier. Most email readers are scanners, so they’ll always read past the topic sentences if they need more details.
Avoid going into full-blown detail into your paragraphs. Keep a balance between action vs paragraph by focusing their attention on the topic sentence, then dive straight into the main points.
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Lastly, consider this article.
We’re not afraid of using bullet points for long sets of data – and neither should you in your emails. The same goes for adding bold text or links, as it draws attention to your call to action (if you have one).
Use personal pronouns & positive language
Keeping the reader’s attention is no easy task. It’s too easy to sound dry and monotonous, even if you have the best intentions at heart.
Use personal pronouns (you, yours, we, us) to make your point. This accomplishes two goals: first, it places your audience first (this is about them), and second, it emphasizes what they get out of the interaction. Refer to yourself (I, my) sporadically, unless you are sharing your personal experiences to prove a point.
Being positive is not only about cracking a joke and being polite. Give praise before criticism, sincerity instead of platitudes, express disagreement in the form of recommendations, and soften bad news with reassurances.
Positive language Negative language reception area waiting room established policy old policy change of schedule postponement confirmation reminder competition is high opportunity is limited start writing well stop writing badly use the big box don’t use the small box
Positive words set a favorable tone for your communication. They minimize the emergence of negative or unpleasant thoughts that may overshadow the purpose of your message.
Help them make a decision
If you’re going to get your audience to act you better know how to nudge them in the right direction.
Imagine a magazine service that gives you three choices: an an online subscription for $50, a print subscription for $100 or you could get both for $110. Most people would go for the 3rd option (only $10 more). However, if the 2nd option is removed, that 3rd becomes way less enticing.
You can play this exact psychological trick over email using persuasion and storytelling.
Driving a point home requires a solid argument. Rational arguments need fact, evidence or testimony to guide a logical conclusion. Beyond that, you’re left with exaggeration, hearsay and logical fallacies to get your point across.
Here are 3 common emotional arguments used in persuasive writing:
Warning of danger: This argument uses the audience’s fear of negative consequences. Exerting pressure while playing on this fear can work in certain cases.If you’re not careful during your trip, you’ll lose all your money to tourist traps.
Emotional or ethical appeal: This argument targets your compassion and concern for others, playing on your heart strings and encouraging pity.We’ve got to stop the warlords—look at the poor, starving people on the news!
Use social proof: With decisions comes anxiety and worry. Psychologists agree that people take the path of least resistance in decision making – that’s where peer reviews and other forms of external validation show their magic.
- Symbolism. Using a powerful symbol or attractive label to build support: “The principles that our nation was founded upon….” “Best practice demands we…”
- Bandwagon. Using peer pressure to build support: “It must be right—everybody else thinks so.” or “It’s got a 5 star rating on google!”
- Precedent. Using something for justification of decision. “We’ve always done it this way” “The last three managers supported this policy”
Don’t be afraid of incorporating storytelling in your emails – especially if you are building up a case or your goal is to relate.
A story usually includes a hero, a problem, and a journey that the hero takes in an attempt to solve their problem. Studies show that we are 22 times more likely to remember stories as opposed to bare facts that we come across. That’s because stories implant lessons into our brains that we can take away and apply to our daily lives.
Consider these statements. Which one makes you want to keep reading?Seagulls have gotten more aggressive lately and some have even attacked pets.As children were playing in the garden, seagulls appeared out of nowhere and pecked their pet tortoise to death.
While more graphic, the latter is also more alluring and will stick to your memory. We can get into that rabbit hole of persuasive storytelling – but let’s end it here.
Cut out useless words and phrases
All done? Pat yourself on the back! But wait – you can definitely cut some of that out.
Use simple sentences (1 idea = 1 sentence) and use contractions wherever possible. Write actively, not passively (place the subject before the action – noun, then verb). Keep an eye on useless adjectives, adverbs and and don’t use two words where only one will do:
advance planning ascend upward assemble together awkward dilemma big in size bisect in two blend together close proximity collaborate together complete monopoly completely unanimous congregate together consensus of opinion continue to persist descend downward end result exact counterpart fellow colleague few in number general public grave danger individual person knots per hour mutual cooperation meaningless gibberish new innovation old adage personal opinoin real fact recur repeatedly small in size tall in height true facts
Here’s another tip on verbs—watch out for words ending in -ion and –ment — these are verbs turned into nouns. Change these nouns to verbs: your sentences will be shorter and livelier.
Wordy:The settlement of travel claims involves the examination of orders
Better:Settling travel claims involves examining orders
With so many emails being sent back and forth, it might be tempting to save time by ending your emails in the same way. Don’t do it!
The way you close your email is just as important as how you start it. Closing sentences communicate your relationship with your recipient and encourages response (if that is your goal).
However, given the risk of sounding monotonous and old-fashioned, you can always spice it up a bit. Here are some safe ways you may want to sign off on your emails:
The sign off
When you need to… Use End a formal correspondence. Sincerely, (your name) End an informal correspondence. Regards, (your name) End an informal correspondence in an upbeat manner.
This is particularly useful when talking to someone you don’t know.
Best, (your name) Best regards, (your name) Best wishes, (your name) Kind regards, (your name) All the best, (your name) End a correspondence with someone you know well. Talk later, (your name) Take care, (your name) Cheers, (your name) Express gratitude. See below table for more examples. Thanks, (your name) Many thanks, (your name) End a correspondence with someone you know well, show affection. XOXO :), (your name) Love, (your name) Encourage response, but never use it if you’re asking someone for a favor. Let me know what you think, (your name) Looking forward to hearing from you, (your name) Express season’s greetings. Wishing you and your family Season’s Greetings and a prosperous New Year.
The helpful sign off
When you communicate a solution to a problem (such as in customer service), you might want to sign off in a way that leaves the door to communication open:
When you need to… Use Show concern. Let me know if that helps. Let me know if the problem persists. Express willingness to help. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Express availability. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you’ve got any questions. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or concerns. Let me know if you need anything else. I’ll be happy to help!
The thankful sign off
When you’re trying to sound sincere, just saying “thanks” won’t do. Try signing off using these examples:
When you need to… Use Support a peer, coworker, or a fellow business. Keep it up! Keep up the good work! Express gratitude. Thanks so much for your help, (your name) Thank you for your time, (your name) Thanks in advance, (your name) Acknowledge interest. Thank you for your interest in (company).
While signing off ends the conversation on a friendly note, your signature lets your reader know not only how they can get in touch with you – but also who you really are.
Particularly busy individuals may have a habit of scrolling down to the signature to see who you are and what qualifications you hold. Failing to include a signature may lead them to dismiss your email entirely.
As a minimum, your signature should contain three basic things:
- First and last name
- Company name
Here are some things not to do, however:
- Resist the urge of including every way to contact you. If you don’t log on to Skype a lot, don’t include it. If you’re rarely in the office, skip the office number.
- Limit your biography and put in only what’s necessary. Remember, a signature is not your life story!
- Don’t go overboard on colors or fonts. Use up to two base colors and fonts that match your branding.
- Avoid putting in quotes or quirky messages of political or overly informal nature.
P.S. But wait, there’s more!
In letters and emails alike, P.S. is an indisputable attention-grabber. It can be used to drive a “forgotten” selling point home or present a call to action from a different angle. Don’t overuse it unless you have an “oops, I forgot” or “by the way” – style punch up your sleeve.
Now, before you aim your mouse squarely on the Send button, re-read, re-check & re-write if necessary.
By getting into the habit of re-reading emails and submitting them at a later date, you’ll be able to see phrases and wording that you may not want to convey. By keeping emails saved in draft form before submitting them, you can revisit them with a fresh set of eyes.
After re-reading, take a moment to get feedback on your work from your friends and colleagues. There are numerous practical reasons for this:
- It helps in developing your own editing skills, for times when you will not have a second opinion.
- It shows respect to those you are seeking feedback from. Why should someone invest their time checking your work if you’re not willing to do so yourself?
- Editing gives you fresh perspective of your writing. If you catch the most glaring mistakes first, you’ll avoid embarrassment later.
The key here is to stay focused and use a routine for writing emails. If something is detracting from that routine, figure out what it is, and learn from it.
If you follow the tips outlined in here, your emails will always be a pleasure to read. More than that, your audience will remember you in a positive light.