by Marc Anderson

Adding Value to Business E-mails for ESL Learners – Keeping it Simple, Presentable, Professional

The hands of children throw upwards messages in the manner of paper airplanes.

3.4 billion. That is how many business e-mails are sent in North America on an average day reported IDC, a technology research firm. 3.4 billion. That’s a huge number. With e-mail playing a dominant role in business communications today, it might be worth it to look at the do’s and don’ts of business e-mail etiquette.

There are three main rules:

Keep it simple.

Keep it presentable.

Keep it professional.

Keep it simple.  The purpose of email is to be quick and direct. You shouldn’t clutter your email with formal phrases like “enclosed you will find”. Just send the file and say, “Here is the ____ you asked me to send you.”  Instead of the phrase “as per your request”, just do what was requested. As for “please be informed”, tell the information instead.

I think you would agree that everyone has so many e-mails to read. And everyone has only so much time. It is better not to send any e-mails that invite the person to follow-up with you, send a reply, or clarify what you said.

Limit your e-mails to one to three paragraphs. Don’t go beyond one page. If you need more than that, you should send a printed document or address the situation in person or at a meeting. Alternatively, if there is something that supports what you say in the email, you could put this in an attachment. This helps streamline the process and makes it easier for the recipient to review the information, and either print or save the information if needed.

It is also important to realize the design of email. If you are trying to reach consensus or engage in a long discussion, e-mail probably is not the best way to communicate. Some individuals may not see the email, they may reply to older messages; they may keep copying everyone’s messages and clutter your inbox, etc. Inevitably, another avenue to communicate is needed to settle things and involve everyone. This might take even longer than if you scheduled an initial, short meeting with a specific purpose to begin with.

A general rule of thumb is to compose and send e-mails with a simple actionable message to generate a specific, uncomplicated action or response. It is not a good idea to send e-mails that are designed to:

  • Prove you are right by sending a history of emails that may have been sent in part already
  • Delay action to prevent you from doing your job in a timely manner
  • Continue thanking the person after the conversation is ended
  • Share unsolicited ads and promotions
  • Provoke anger, disappointment, gossip, etc.

It is okay to disagree with something and to write an email expressing that sentiment, but it is wise to wait until you “cool off” before sending the e-mail. You may regret what you sent. Also, if you don’t understand someone’s email, it is best just to write to the sender or call that person for clarification.

You should be careful to follow protocol of your company before sending e-mails to any clients. When must you consult with your superiors before sending an e-mail?  For example, if you discover a mistake with accounting or another company error, do you need to talk to your boss first? What is the protocol?

Do not talk about other employees or your employer on e-mail. Keep your work e-mail for work-related communication for the purpose of doing your job to the best of your ability.

If you need help with any part of your job responsibility, it is a good idea to seek help in person. Don’t ask on e-mail for reassurance or direction on your job. It might be seen as being inadequate and a nuisance to the person receiving the email. Don’t complain. Be positive. If you need reassurance or direction, seek out someone in person who can help. Do you have a mentor or friend at work who you can ask instead? Is there a trusted colleague who you can talk with?

Keep it presentable.  Have you realized that many of the interoffice e-mails have spelling and grammar errors? These e-mails appear not to have been proofread by the writer or checked by an online proofing system like spell-check. Yes, e-mails can be informal, but you need to watch the informal language, lax grammar, cryptic acronyms, emoticons, chain letters, the offensive language, spam, spreading of viruses, and the habit of forwarding mail to others.

You need to think of business e-mails as business. There is no room for spelling errors. There can be no grammar errors. The content must be clear and well-written. There should not be any typos. To help you write more presentable e-mails, you might want a colleague to proof your writing, or you can take the time to read through it a few times and use spell-check.

It is also important for you to look over your punctuation, capitalization, and formatting. Avoid the common mistakes. Don’t be the writer who overuses a particular punctuation mark like the exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?), or the ellipse (…). Perhaps it is not appropriate to use an emoticon to a potential client or boss. You need to watch for “all capital letters” as these words are perceived as YELLING. A better way to emphasize your point would be to boldface or italicize it. Again, don’t overdue. Be careful about your use of acronyms and casual lingo. Your email message may come across as too casual or unprofessional. Your reader may miss the message if he/she is not familiar with the acronym or the lingo.

It is also important to realize that what you see on your screen (regarding fancy formatting, graphics, logos, etc.) many not be the same as what the recipient sees. There are differences in hardware, software, and filter settings. If an attachment is not recognized by your recipient, it may end up in a junk or spam folder.

Another important consideration is seeing if the person you writing to has the software to open the attachment and that (if the document is lengthy) they have a server that can handle the size of the attachment. It might be better to post the files a file transfer protocol site for them to be downloaded or link to a Website to display the attachment.

Keep it professional.  I know you might be shaking your head because you have heard all of this before. Well, one can never be too careful. Your business e-mail must be professional at all times. For email, the old postcard rule applies. Nobody else is supposed to read your postcards, but you’d be a fool if you wrote anything private on one. – Judith Martin

Just because you send an e-mail to one person does not mean that the e-mail stops there. The recipient may choose to share this with another person, and so on and so on. You must be careful about jokes and humor. Are your opinions really necessary to send on a business e-mail? Is that chain letter a good idea to pass along? Think twice about sending it. Maybe it is wiser to hold off and send this (if it must be sent) via a personal e-mail to a personal e-mail address. Remember, too, that employers can routinely archive and monitor e-mails.

Are you aware of your company’s e-mail policy? Revisit this policy. If you don’t have a policy, it doesn’t not mean you can do whatever you wish. Even though there might not be a formal policy, use your common sense.

Be thorough. How many times have you sent an e-mail to solicit input or to ask a question, and then when the person responded to you, they did not address your question(s)? Answer questions that are asked of you. If you want others to do the same, be clear in your requests. Supply them with the needed information so they can answer directly to you.

Don’t be too informal even though e-mails are an informal way to communicate. If you are sending an e-mail to a boss, an associate, a client, etc. then it is important to be as professional as if you were writing a letter or a memo.

Double-check that those recipients who are intended to receive the e-mail are included in the “To” or “CC” fields. There is nothing worse than getting left off an important e-mail.  For example, if you are thanking specific team members, ensure the names are all there and they are spelled correctly with accurate addresses. You might want to carbon-copy the respective managers. Again, recheck all spellings and addresses for accuracy.

If your e-mail includes any data (facts, statistics, claims, quotes, etc.), it is important for you to double-check these, too. Make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date, and referenced (if needed) correctly.

Be honest. Don’t make any messages sound like you’re going overboard. Don’t advertise excessively. No one likes to have continuous sales pitches thrown their way. Do they?

Other E-Mail Tips

  • Consider using instant messaging for short online conversation with coworkers. This will help prevent your e-mail inbox from becoming cluttered.
  • Save your business e-mail for business. Don’t share it with others. Let your friends and family members write to you via a personal e-mail address. If they have your business address already, ask them to avoid writing to you at work or have them delete this address.
  • Fill in the “To” and the “CC” fields as the last step before sending a message. This will prevent the possibility of your message being sent before it is completed, adequately proofread, and before you have successfully added the attachments.
  • If you are angry or upset, type the e-mail but don’t type in the name of the recipient. Hold off for you to revisit this e-mail at a later time. Save the message as a draft. Who knows? You might decide not to send the e-mail after all.
  • Take the time to ensure that the correct file is attached that you wanted to send. Make sure it is complete and that it can be opened.
  • Make sure your e-mail address is professional.
  • Include one topic per e-mail to ensure you get responses in a timely manner.
  • Don’t use e-mail to convey high-impact news (a death, new company president, serious illness).
  • Don’t send an “urgent” message by e-mail unless you know the person is expecting it. You can always call and let someone know it is coming. Don’t assume it will be read immediately or that your e-mail takes precedent over other e-mails sent to a recipient or other work that the recipient may need to do.

How to Make Your Business Emails Value-Packed

  • Don’t be slow in replying to e-mail. Check your e-mail at least daily to get your messages and to respond.
  • Don’t use e-mails to avoid speaking to a person face-to-face. Don’t use e-mails to avoid phone conversations. In other words, you shouldn’t always use e-mail as the sole way to communicate as the person/people may think you are avoiding them. Personal contact from time to time is necessary for building and sustaining personal and business relationships. Ask yourself if the message would have more impact as a memo, a letter or a mailing. Ask if it fits the purpose of an e-mail.
  • Is there a way you can make your e-mails stand out?  Spend some quality time analyzing business e-mails from other competitors to their customers. This might trigger some creative ideas of your own.
  • Don’t go overboard. Send fewer e-mails that are purposeful rather than repetitive, incomplete e-mails or those that have little substance.
  • Remember, that e-mails are a form of communication. They are an extension of you. Write them in a way that reflects your best self.

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If you’re like me, you routinely use e-mail as an instant, convenient, and effective way to communicate. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you better choose what, where, when, why and how to “say it” via e-mail.

3.4 billion business e-mails sent each day in North America. That’s a big number. Let’s ensure that those you write are simple, presentable, and professional.

  • Do you have any questions about business e-mails?
  • Do you have a story to pass on about this topic?
  • Can I help you with your goal of ESL fluency?

    Cheerful happy smiling fingers with famous landmarks of the globe

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.