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How to Write an Effective, Polite, and Useful E-mail

How to Write an Effective, Polite, and Useful E-mail

The Times

Like many forms of communication, e-mail is no less susceptible to the vagaries of shorthand, slang, jargon and plain silliness

Think before you press send. It’s all too easy to bombard the people around you with a continuous stream of thought-bites via email. Whether you’re an office newbie or you have simply fallen into bad e-habits, it’s time to take stock of how you use email. Here’s how to set the right tone and become a master user:

1. Dearest Sir. Flowery introductions are unnecessary, says Chris Horseman, the managing director of Balance Learning, a training company. But do make sure that you get the person’s name right. “Don’t make assumptions when you are talking to someone you don’t know,” he says. Guessing the sex of the sender or confusing the order of Chinese names are common errors.

2. Build a rapport. “Always greet the recipient,” says Monica Seeley, who writes about and teaches good email practice. “And if you are responding to an email, mirror what has been sent.” Emails are often quick-fire, so take the time to create a good impression, particularly with someone you don’t know well.

3. Pick up the phone. Ask yourself whether it’s better to call and introduce yourself, particularly to a customer. “Don’t be afraid to pick up and speak to someone even if they are only four floors away,” Seeley says. “A voice message can be much warmer [than an email].”

4. All users. It’s one thing to press “reply to all” accidentally when you meant to send your message to one recipient, quite another to email your entire organization, including the CEO, to ask to borrow a mobile phone charger. It’s only a matter of time before such timewasters are served with email ASBOs.

5. DON’T USE CAPITALS. It’s scary when people shout.

6. Keep it corporate. “Forget fancy formatting and stick to [your company’s] corporate format,” Seeley says. “When an email leaves your organisation, it can lose its layout.” Never, ever use emoticons, send jokes or use abbreviations that other people might misunderstand. “If you wouldn’t be happy having your email message photocopied on to headed paper, don’t send it,” Horseman says.

7. Keep it brief. “If it’s going to be a lengthy email, use headers or bullet points,” says Louise Oliver, a spokesperson for Adecco, a recruitment company. “Use the subject header to summarise your message and put an overview of the objective in the first paragraph.” Attach background information, if necessary, in a separate document to avoid sensory overload.

8. Cyber stalking isn’t cool. “Allow 24 hours for a response unless it really is urgent. If it is urgent then pick up the phone,” Seeley says. Don’t call someone to ask if they received the email you sent three minutes ago.

9. Think before you send. “Make sure that you are sending your email to the right person,” Oliver says. “Use your judgment before copying someone into your message. People ‘c.c.’ as an insurance policy,” she says. “It’s always a balancing act of what’s appropriate.”

10. Communicate, don’t lecture. “Anything that’s contentious, that might upset people or cause arguments… it’s better to pick up the phone,” Horseman says.


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