No one has ever escaped death… and also email.
Even though emails have become such an integral part of our lives, many of us don’t understand the finer points of writing emails. Remember, you’re relying on emails to accomplish some seriously important tasks such as landing a job, accomplishing critical tasks at your workplace, getting approvals, and so on.
A small slipup can sink your email even though, overall, it is well written. For example, if the receiver interprets your language to be impolite (examples in point # 6) or servile (examples in point # 15) – and one line is enough to give that impression – s/he may promptly delete your otherwise well-written, well-intentioned email. Remember, you may think that you wrote the most polite and confident email in the world, but it’s the receiver’s interpretation that seals the fate of your email. And more often than not you don’t get a second chance with the same person.
Some of you hunt for formats for different types of emails (leave, job etc.) on the internet, but a format can leave your email overly generalized and ineffectual like smiley stock images. Such emails don’t stand out. And if they don’t… you know the result.
Instead, learn fundamentals of writing emails, which you can use to write any type of email.
In this post, I’ll cover several points on writing effective emails, which will help you avoid quite a few common mistakes. The biggest of them all is empathy, which forms the soul of your email, but is often missed. If you want to remember just one point from this post, remember empathy, point # 12.
Without further ado, here are 23 points (with lots of examples) on writing effective emails. For ease of understanding, these points have been divided into four sections:
Section I: Email basics (Point # 1-7)
Section II: Before you write the email (Point # 8-11)
Section III: While you write the email (Point # 12-21)
Section IV: After you send the email (Point # 22-23)
Whereas the first section covers different components of an email (subject, salutation, and so on), the other three, as their names suggest, cover points that you should pay attention to at the three stages – before, during, and after – of an email.
Let’s start with the first section.
Section I: Email basics
If you’re a regular email writer, you would be familiar with most of the stuff in this section, but nonetheless give a cursory look. You’ll find some useful stuff even in the most obvious parts.
1. CC and BCC
People know why ‘To’ and ‘CC’ fields exist in emails, but some don’t know why poor ‘BCC’ is there. Here is a brief explanation of these fields:
- You write those email ids in ‘To’ field from whom you want an action or reply.
- You write those email ids in ‘CC’ field whom you want to keep informed of the issue covered in the email, but from whom you may not need any action.
- And you write those email ids in ‘BCC’ field whom you want to keep informed of the issue covered in the email but you don’t want others to know about it.
For example, if you’re in talks with a potential client to buy your product or service, you may not want to CC your manager because the talks are still in the initial phase and you’re not sure how the recipient may take unfamiliar email ids in the CC field. In such a case, you may BCC your manager. The recipient wouldn’t know if anyone else has received the email.
Dos & Don’ts
- Avoid CCing people as a matter of habit. Don’t mark people unless they must receive your email. People hate receiving emails they’ve nothing to do with.
Apply commonsense and you’ll write an effective subject line.
Subject of the email should provide the recipient a clear idea of what to expect in the email.
Note that points 2-4 will be explained in further detail through an actual email at the end of point # 4.
Dos & Don’ts
- Avoid all-cap words in the subject line to draw attention of people. They look spammy.
- Avoid words such as ‘urgent’ to get your email preferential treatment. If it’s not viewed as urgent by the recipient you may be labeled a habitual urgent-offender and in future even your genuine urgent emails run the risk of getting ignored.
- Make the subject as personal and credible as possible to increase the likelihood of your cold email getting opened (more on cold emails further down in the post). Examples:
‘Follow up on our meeting at the sales conference on 12 July’
‘Contributory article from a blogger published on Forbes and Entrepreneur’
The underlined parts in the above subjects make their respective emails more credible and personal, making them more likely to get opened.
3. Greeting/ Salutation
Formal emails start with ‘Dear Mr. (or Ms.) [Second name]’.
People use comma (,) as well as colon (:) to end the salutation. Comma is more common, but use the one which is more common in your business environment. In modern practice, however, people are omitting punctuation (comma and colon) at the end of the salutation to leave a clean look.
You may use this salutation when writing to people not known to you and fairly senior to you.
3.2 Respected Sir/ Madam
This salutation is used instead of ‘Dear Mr. / Ms. Bond’ in some cultures to address people fairly senior to you. Strictly speaking, it’s not the right salutation, but if it works in your culture, you may stick to it.
3.3 Dear Sir/ Madam
This salutation is used when you don’t know the name of the recipient.
3.4 Other salutations in the professional world
However, in many organizations, ‘Dear Mr. Bond’ may be deemed too formal even when writing to senior people. In the day to day use, salutations such as ‘Hi James’ or plain-vanilla ‘James’ are more commonly used in the professional world.
Observe the norm in your organization and follow it.
4. Body of the email
After the salutation comes body of the email, which can broadly be classified, sequentially, into three major parts:
If the recipient doesn’t know you, you can introduce yourself briefly in a sentence or two.
Some start with a pleasantry such as ‘hope you’re doing well’. Such opening is fine if you know the person. Otherwise avoid it. And when you write such an opening don’t overdo by bringing them in subsequent replies.
Also, part of the introduction is purpose of the email. The recipient would naturally be curious to know why you’ve written the email. This too can come in a sentence. However, if the purpose of the email is obvious to the recipient, you may skip this part. It’s all about commonsense.
4.2 Main matter
This is the crux of your email. Unless you commit a blunder in other parts of the email (salutation, introduction etc.), the response you get to your email will be largely determined by what you write in the main matter. Here you put your case forward, support your arguments, and provide data and other evidence.
In the business world, emails are written mainly to accomplish a task. You may want an internship or job. You may want a meeting. You may want to sell your product or service. You may want to placate a hurt customer. You may want to get 9-day leave. And so on. (There can, however, be emails such as FYI which aren’t strictly focused on tasks.)
Many of these matters can be make-or-break for you. Therefore, it’s paramount to pay special attention to this part of the email. One of the best ways I’ve found to write compelling body of the email is to put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and think hard on how s/he would benefit or how would you address their objections and concerns. In other words, you need to be empathetic to write an effective body of the email, which happens to be the most critical part of an email. You’ll see an example of how empathy can improve an email in a short while.
What action do you expect from the receiver?
If you’re writing to get a sponsorship for an event, you may ask for a convenient time to talk or meet. (People rarely write a cheque just on an email.)
If you’re writing for job, you may ask for an opportunity to meet or interview.
If you’re writing to schedule a meeting, you may ask for confirmation for the time, date, and venue you proposed.
Without a clear ask and deadline (wherever applicable) people may not take the action you desire. When writing an ask though, you need to be polite and respectful – and not at all demanding – especially when you’re seeking a favor.
Here is a sample email that illustrates most of what we’ve covered so far in this post. Comments are in square brackets.
Your organization launched a paid Wellness App few months back. As the head of one of the sales team, you’re required to write to the HR department in Corporates to sell the App to their employees.
- Bulky attachments can take time to download if the recipient’s internet doesn’t run like Usain Bolt. Therefore, zip (or compress) bulky documents (~ 10 MB).
- Unless the recipient wants to edit the documents, attach them in PDF form.
- Refer the attachment(s) in the body of the email. The recipient shouldn’t spend even an extra second figuring out which attachment goes with which part of the email.
Although you should be polite throughout the email, you should specifically end on a polite and positive note, as emails don’t have emotions and can be easily misinterpreted. Consider this email to schedule a call:
The same email is rewritten now as:
The recipient may take the first version as rude even though the sender may have sent the email with all the politeness in the world.
Here is another example of how to be polite in your email:
Chris Haroun in his book 101 Crucial Lessons They Don’t Teach You in Business School advocates extra dose of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in emails to avoid such misunderstanding:
In all of your emails try to use the word please and thank you. This works a heck of a lot better than the cold ‘Regards’ you see at the bottom of many emails. Emails are often misinterpreted as the tone is tough to interpret. As a result, many emails come across as too aggressive even if the intent was a passive message.
So, unless you’re writing to a friend or colleague, be overly courteous – but not servile (covered later in the post) – to end the email, especially when the balance of power is against you (the receiver may be a far senior person or your ask may be too big).
It’s better to close with ‘Thanks’, ‘Thanks and regards’, or ‘Sincerely’ than ‘Regards’. Avoid ‘Cheers’, ‘Best’, or ‘Respectfully’.
Make your business emails look professional by adding a signature. A signature typically comprises of your name, designation & department, organization, contact details, and the organization logo.
Some email service providers append your signature as the default option even in replies, which can lead to an unnecessary clutter of signatures. And this may look particularly bad if your reply is a slender single line compared to a fat signature that runs into 4-5 lines.
To avoid this avalanche of signatures, you may uncheck the default option through email settings. Some email services such as Gmail don’t provide signature in replies as the default option, and therefore you don’t need to do anything in such cases.
Section II: Before you write the email
Consider following before you write an email:
8. Do you even need to write the email?
People sometimes forget this and enter into long threads of emails, losing track of the objective. In some cases, a quick phone call or a candid in-person chat may resolve the issue much faster than an email would.
Sometimes, not using an email is in fact preferred. Issues that require lot of explaining and attract clarifying questions should best be addressed through conversations. Issues where emotions can flare up or you may be misunderstood too should best be avoided on emails.
Remember, email is a means to transact or resolve an issue. It’s not the end. If it’s not the best option to achieve your objective, junk it.
9. Avoid more than one action point in an email
You may not respond to even that issue which you could’ve responded to immediately. And, moreover, multiple issues in a single email can divert attention from – and hence dilute – the more important issues.
10. Keep official email id strictly for official purpose
Don’t write anything from your official email id that you’ll be embarrassed to share with others, because your emails stay there even if you delete them from every conceivable folder. They’re backed up. They’re permanent.
Similarly, exercise restraint in forwarding memes; items that show political, religious, or other affiliations; funny stuff; and other unofficial stuff from your official email id or to your colleagues.
11. Avoid weird email ids
For God’s sake don’t have email ids like these:
Don’t be surprised. Some use such email ids.
They’re utterly unprofessional and reflect poorly on the sender. If the receiver bothers to check the email id, s/he will shoot the email down immediately.
Although much less worse than the above email ids, avoid using following as well:
You would have received emails from such generic email ids from customer care, sales, and other departments of organizations you might have dealt with. Such email ids are faceless, impersonal. Ideally, you would want to know the name of the person you’re communicating with.
Don’t strain the eyes of the receiver by not separating your first and the second name. Use a period or an underscore (hyphens don’t look good in email ids) to make your name inferable from your email id.
Avoid a long string of numbers. Two digits are fine. Three would be a stretch.
Use your second name. Use acceptable symbols such as period and hyphen. But restrain the string of numbers from going berserk.
Section III: While you write the email
12. Be empathetic (this is the biggest)
In the above email, Vineet wrote following as the benefit to the organization:
Now consider this as the benefit:
What’s the difference between the two?
In the second version, the sender puts himself into the shoes of the HR person and thinks how his organization will benefit from the App. HR in most organizations is struggling to retain employees, and the first point tries to address that pain point. The second point too is relevant and it improves the first version by not finishing at employees getting less stressed and fitter, but linking it to productivity at the workplace.
To give another example, if you’re applying for a job, think deeply what specific skills the employer requires for the role. Mention the work you’ve done that required those skills in your cover letter or email.
Yet another example: if you’re asking for sponsorship from a corporate/ brand for an event you’re organizing, mention the footfall (expected and historical, if applicable), target audience, celebrity guests/ speakers, other top brands who’ve already agreed to sponsor, and any other thing that may boost their brand. That’s what a potential sponsor would be interested to know.
That’s how you maximize the odds of a positive response. Being deeply empathetic. Thinking as the recipient of the email would.
If you introspect, you’ll find that you’ve been doing this subconsciously, but not often enough. For example, when asking for leave in person, you guess what would be the best time to approach your manager. Don’t you, especially for important or longer leave? To give another example, you might have waited for your parents to get into an appropriate mood to get something done or break a bad news. Haven’t you?
What if you can make this a process while writing emails, especially the important ones? That is, every time you write an important email, your thought process automatically starts with ‘how can I make the recipient succeed’. If you practice it long enough, you can bring the same empathy to even spontaneous conversations, thereby improving your odds of getting positive results.
13. Write short emails
People receive dozens – even hundreds – of emails every day, and they’ve many other things to do besides reading and responding to emails.
If the recipient knows you and the subject is important, s/he will tolerate a long email. Otherwise, unlikely.
If the recipient doesn’t know you (cold email), a 500-word email may get deleted within seconds of a cursory glance.
Don’t test people’s patience. Keep your emails to a maximum of 200-250 words, unless you’re writing to colleagues/ friends on an issue that requires elaboration.
14. Do your homework when writing cold emails
Email to a stranger without any intermediary reference is a cold email. Such emails don’t get opened too often, and even if they’re opened, it’s difficult to get your work done. After all, people hate being pitched by strangers.
But cold emails are the modern-day reality. You can’t shy away from them if you want to step up your game and explore business and networking opportunities you haven’t explored earlier. Even during job hunt, you write plenty of cold invites and emails.
Here are few steps you can take to improve the success rate of your cold emails:
14.1 If possible, make your subject line more appealing
Can you add something in the subject line to make it more appealing to the recipient? I mean things of their interest, some credibility factor, reference etc. We covered this earlier in the post in point # 2 (Subject). The two examples from there are:
Why such subject line?
Because many cold emails don’t even get opened. You would want to maximize the odds of yours getting opened, wouldn’t you?
14.2 What’s in it for the recipient?
If your cold email is only about what you want to get from the recipient, then forget getting a response.
You need to clearly articulate the benefit(s) the recipient will get as a result of agreeing to what you propose in the email. If they’re in a position of strength (and they are; otherwise you would be receiving the email, and not writing), they receive emails such as yours by the dozen every day. Why should they work with you when others offer them more compelling options than you do? (Refer to the two bullet points in the email we covered in point # 4 to get an idea of how benefits are articulated.)
If you want to articulate the benefit(s) well and credibly, you need to spend time researching the recipient and knowing their pain points and KPIs, and that requires work. Nothing comes easy.
14.3 Establish credibility
People don’t trust strangers easily because they’ve been betrayed by one or the other smooth talker at some point.
Therefore, you need to strike credibility, ideally in a small paragraph, if you’re or your product/ service is not well known. Give proof of your expertise and track record. (The second paragraph in the email we covered in point # 4 will give you an idea of how credibility is established.)
14.4 Write short emails
Make the email strictly short (~ 200 words). Long, cold emails are highly susceptible to deletion-without-reading.
14.5 Be mentally ready for failures
Because success rate of cold emails is low despite writing the best emails (with bad ones, it’ll be practically zero), you should ideally focus on the process (of writing and sending emails) and be mentally ready for failures to lessen the force of multiple disappointments.
15. Don’t use servile language
More appropriate will be:
Some use such language when they’re asking for something significant.
People, however, want to see confident and polite persons. Not servile. So, project your strengths, stay confident, and be polite.
16. Use bullet points and boldface sparingly
Bullet points are avoided in formal writing such as essays, but emails have an objective to achieve. If bullet points help the recipient understand key points better, go for it by all means. Just don’t overdo it.
People boldface text to emphasize certain parts of their email. In written English, italicizing – and not boldfacing – is the right way to emphasize text. However, many aren’t aware of this rule and hence may miss your emphasis. Therefore, it’s fine to boldface sparingly to emphasize even though, strictly speaking, it’s against the rules. And in case you’re using section headings in your email, make sure they’re differentiated from the boldfaced text in the body of the email.
However, if you’re writing to a native speaker or to a person who you think has excellent command on the language, use italics to emphasize. You’ll impress them.
17. Leave important emails in draft mode for some time
Don’t send an important email immediately after finishing it. Let it cool off in the draft mode for a while – few hours to a day. This, however, may not always be possible because of urgent nature of the email, but even then try leaving some gap if the outcome of the email is important to you.
Why cooling off?
The cooling off period will likely give you fresh ideas to improve your email (on core issues, and not on typos and grammar), and any improvement is welcome when the email is important to you. Professional writers follow cooling off to the hilt. They come back to their first draft after a gap – sometimes even days – and they invariably get ideas to improve their draft.
An example of cooling off is to not send an angry email. When angry, either don’t write or don’t send if you’ve written. Cool down and then rethink. When you’re back to sane mood, more often than not, you’ll realize what a folly sending that angry email would’ve been.
18. Don’t send all the emails together when writing mass emails
When you’re sending several emails with more or less the same content to different people (say, when you’re applying for a job), it’s a good idea to not send all the emails in a short span of time. You should rather send a small batch (~ 10 percent) first and then wait for a day or two. This cooling off period does two things:
- If you don’t get the expected response to any of your emails in the first batch, you can hypothesize as to what might have gone wrong and take corrective steps. But if you send all the emails in one go, you can’t rescue other emails. This is like running a pilot before launching a product or service full blown.
- Like in the case of writing important emails, you can get ideas to improve your remaining emails during the cool off.
19. Proofread your emails
I’ve seen people writing emails for internship and full-time job containing glaring mistakes. Imagine what impression the potential employer would carry on reading such emails: ‘If this person can’t care to write few lines of email correctly, s/he will likely show similar laziness in the job.’ Because most emails are written to meet professional objectives, spelling & grammar mistakes and sloppy writing can make you look unprofessional.
You may use services such as Grammarly to detect mistakes in your emails. Now even Google has started providing grammar checks on Google Docs. However, do run a manual check for important emails over and above such service, if you use one.
Dos & Don’ts
- Avoid SMS and WhatsApp language such as ‘thru’ (for through) and ‘ur’ (for your) like plague in professional emails. (College students, particularly, are prone to it.) Such language is an absolute disaster.
20. Think before hitting ‘Reply all’
‘Reply all’ is a dangerous button. Don’t press it unless you’re sure others copied in the email need to know your response. People hate to receive emails which have little to do with them.
Few other points to keep in mind:
- Avoid emoticons, slangs, and jargons in your emails.
- When forwarding emails, your default mode should be to add a line or two to briefly tell what the forwarded email is about.
- In each of ‘To’ and ‘CC’ fields, key in the email id of the most senior person first and so on. People have fragile egos.
Section IV: After you send the email
22. Send a reminder email
If you’re expecting a response to your email and if you don’t get it, you can write a reminder email after few days. Keep following in mind regarding reminder emails:
22.1 Don’t rush with the reminder
Some refresh their inbox every hour hoping to receive eagerly anticipated response to their email sent just few hours back. Well, the recipient may have many other priorities more important than responding to your email.
So, wait. Don’t rush with the reminder email.
There is no fit-all wait period for all situations. In some cases, the expected response time could be 1-2 weeks (example: getting an article published). In some, 2-3 days. Figure out what it is for your case and send a reminder accordingly.
A rushed reminder would not just peeve the recipient, but also project your desperation, both of which you should avoid.
22.2 Don’t be pushy
Don’t be pushy in your reminder. Don’t show desperation.
A reminder email could be as simple as this:
22.3 Write on top of the earlier email
Some people compose a brand new email to send as a reminder. With such a reminder, the recipient may not be able to locate your original email without the search function.
Make her/ his task easy by writing the reminder on top of the earlier email so that the recipient can easily see your earlier email. This is commonsense, but people miss it.
22.4 Should I write a second reminder?
You can after an even longer gap, but if you haven’t received a response to your original and the first reminder, it’s highly unlikely the second reminder will yield a positive result. You should definitely move on after the second reminder if you choose to write it, remembering that cold emails have a high casualty rate.
23. Respond in different font color to save time
Sometimes you can save plenty of time and, more importantly, bring clarity to your email by writing your response(s) in a different font color right next to each of the sender’s point. Here is an example: