Last week I had the privilege of presenting a workshop for the staff of a fast-growing digital asset management software company here in Madison. The topic was how to write consistently with the company’s brand, which is friendly, helpful and professional. A big piece of any business communications, of course, is email. How can you write emails that are personable without being too casual?
Here are my top 6 email writing dos and don’ts on how to write email communications that are both friendly AND professional:
1. DO start with a friendly greeting that includes the recipient’s [first] name.
There is neuroscience research showing that hearing one’s own name activates parts of the brain that increase attention. I would hazard a guess that people pay more attention when addressed by their name whether in writing or orally. This alone convinces me to use the addressee’s name in every email greeting. (Use the first name except in very formal writing where you might use a full name or a Mr. or Ms. title).
What should you put before the name? Sometimes simply the name followed by a comma will do (“Jane,”), but usually we want to use another word of greeting. “Hi Jane,” is a common greeting and is widely accepted. “Hey Jane,” is more familiar and casual. Using “Dear” could be read as more formal or as more intimate, depending on the context. There’s no right greeting to use except the one that your company agrees is the one most aligned with its brand.
In a lengthy email exchange, the person you’re writing to might drop the greeting and simply respond to your message with answers to your questions or responses. Talk to your company about whether you should follow suit. Personally, I rarely write an email that doesn’t include the person’s name at least somewhere (“That’s a great idea Jane!” or “Thanks so much Jane!”) Of course, appropriate language and level of formality will also depend on your particular relationship with the person you’re interacting with. When in doubt, check your brand guidelines or ask a colleague or supervisor for direction.
2. DO use emoticons :-O.
Emoticons are becoming more and more accepted in business communications and can help with guiding the way a message is read. Emoticons can make a message seem more personal and friendly, so if that’s the tone you’re going for, use them!
More neuroscience: Studies have shown that seeing an upright smiley face activates the same part of the brain as seeing a real face! Still, don’t use them unless your company says it’s okay. And know your audience. If you’re communicating with a millennial, emoticons are probably fair game. If your audience is over 70, maybe not. But there are plenty of exceptions to both of these generalizations.
Depending on the nature of your business, you might or might not want to use emoticons. They are probably not appropriate for a law practice or government institution for instance, whereas a social media firm might use them frequently. If your industry is somewhere in between, you still might want to refrain from using emoticons in your initial communications. Consider waiting until you’ve established rapport with someone before you start inserting 🙂 s in emails to them.
I would recommend sticking to standard happy, sad, and occasionally surprised emoticons, and not pictorialize anger, disgust or love/kisses. That might be going overboard in a professional context.
Here are two useful blog articles on the topic: Do emoticons have a place in business communication? and How to Use Emoticons and Emojis in Business Communications.
3. DO write a catchy, informative, spam-word-free subject line.
“What are you doing May 17?” That subject line might get attention from some people, but others might delete it without a second thought, not knowing why they are being asked this question. What about “Clear your calendar for May 17. [Company] is taking you to dinner”? Sure it’s longer, but I’m inspired to find out more about this dinner.
When I first decided to email my LinkedIn contacts and invite them to join my e-list, I used the subject line “I’ve never done this before, Jane!” A lot of people opened the email. But now so many people are using that subject line, I don’t think it would get much traction. I’ve changed my subject line to “Where to Find the Best Essay Expert Articles: Your Inbox.” I like this one. It doesn’t hide anything and doesn’t use any tricks. A lot of people open it and sign up for my lists.
Be careful to avoid words that will get your email caught in spam filters. “Free” is a big one. An extensive list can be found in the article Subject Line Spam Trigger Words. There are others. Just google “email subject line spam words” and you’ll get a lot of good info.
4. DON’T overuse exclamation points!
I am guilty myself of overusing these pesky punctuation marks. But they often make things seem less important when we’re trying to make them seem more important. I recommend limiting yourself to one exclamation point per email. You might be surprised how much more powerful your writing becomes.
When I was putting my newsletter together, my assistant sent me a draft and I saw an overabundance of exclamation marks. One example was the description of my 8 Most Important Updates for You to Know on LinkedIn – March 2016. The description read:
Here is a summary of LinkedIn’s latest platform updates, from job features to mobile apps – and some that are still rolling out!
What was the purpose of that exclamation mark? I’m sure I don’t know. Both my assistant and I use them unconsciously and we are starting to catch ourselves and reduce their proliferation.
5. DON’T overuse the word “please.”
The group I presented to was in Wisconsin, a state with a reputation for being “nice.” So the question came up of whether the word “please” can be overused in email messages. The answer is yes! People especially tend to overuse the word in awkward phrases like “Please find attached…” This is not language you’d use if you were speaking with someone.
Instead, use conversational language: “I’ve attached the document here” or “The updated version is attached.”
We also frequently say, “Please let me know if you have any questions.” Here, the “please” is more natural, so you might choose to use it. But, like the rule with exclamation marks, limit yourself to one “please” per email.
6. DO reread your emails 3 times before sending.
The best way to make sure you’re following the above 5 rules AND that you catch any typos or confusing sentences, is to reread, reread, and reread again. Even those of use who know the best practices and who blog about them (ehhemm….) make some of the errors listed above. As I frequently say, every editor needs an editor. Your writing will be much more professional if you proofread it, saving you time in the long run.
So check your work at least 3 times before hitting send. Your recipients (and your boss) will be so grateful that you did.