Writing professional e-mail: style, rules and elements

Email is the most important communication medium today. Not just on the job, but in your personal life too. And yet we all receive so many poorly worded, unclearly structured and meaningless emails. Probably the world economy could save billions of Euros if everyone would follow the simple email rules. You’ll see it doesn’t take time or effort. And saves a lot of nerves.

It takes a lot of training to make an email really good

It takes a lot of training and a good sense of proportion to write a really good e-mail. (Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash)

The most important tip in advance: a clearly worded email not only helps the recipient, but also you as the sender. Because with this you also save yourself a lot of time (for inquiries) and achieve the desired result faster. So it pays off.

When NOT to write an email

There are good reasons NOT to write an email. The two big competitors of e-mail are the telephone call (gladly also via video) and Messenger (from WhatApp to Wire). Correctly, ticket systems and wikis like Jira and Confluence must also be mentioned. These have functions that can either significantly reduce or increase the amount of mail you receive. Here’s a distinction:

Mail vs. Phone call

Well, basically there are two archetypes in communication: some like to write and moan every time the phone rings, others always call and always look for the personal conversation.

In short: Both are right – and wrong. Presumably the world economy could save billions of euros if everyone followed the simple email rules.And for negotiations this is important. So:

  • Discussion or brainstorming by phone is easier than on the phone: If you are not (yet) sure about something or if you want to clarify a conflict, a personal conversation or a phone call is the right choice. That’s because you can’t be so specific about the other person in an email.
  • For decisions and calls to action, email is the medium of choice: In a phone call, everyone hears what they want to hear. Therefore the result will be blurred. However, an e-mail must also be clearly worded to justify this purpose. And of course difficult decisions and requests for action should be discussed beforehand with the person concerned – in the e-mail they are fixed.
  • If a theme goes back and forth three times, it’s time for a phone call: Especially when one side responds in monosyllables. That’s when the alarm bells start ringing.
  • A phone call leads to spontaneous, an e-mail to considered results: Depending on the topic at hand, it may make sense to ask for a spontaneous response – or to ask for a well-considered one.
  • When the other person is short on time, email is always superior: interlocutors who are in meetings a lot sometimes need a short email for a decision – and not a phone call with small talk and all the trimmings.

Mail vs. Messenger

WhatApp or Wire are a mixture of phone call and e-mail – but only the worst of both worlds.

  • If you want to work in a concentrated way, you will always be disturbed by a posting and one has the impression to have to answer faster than to a mail.
  • The archiving function (and thus the reliability) is not given.
  • Personally, I work on the principle of the empty mailbox – this does not work with several messengers.
  • Once I have read a message on WhatsApp, it is quickly forgotten, because there is no "inbox" where I can meet her again.

I could go on. Admittedly, there are also advantages of messengers: with distributed teamwork, for example, it gives you a.B. Slack the sense of connectedness and the ability to chatter. This is also necessary. But only with good and clear rules.

Therefore my recommendation: All important issues and decisions are communicated by email (see below, how). The messenger runs alongside in a team-friendly way – but can also be turned off at any time.

Collaboration tools vs. Email

By this I mean tools like Jira, Trello, Confluence u.s.w.: These powerful tools of software development have long since arrived in most companies. And yet ticket systems and wikis are still in their infancy. Therefore, they only work under these rules:

  • For communication to work, pages or tasks need to be "subscribed" to. Use this sparingly but reliably. Each:r in the company must ensure that notification e-mails are taken seriously and not deleted as spam without further ado..
  • Defines the boundary between tasks, Confluence pages, and email communication Very clear: Sometimes it’s better to discuss something in a smaller group. But if a ticket system is the main system, this should be the absolute exception.

The biggest catch to these techniques is that they are tools that not everyone has been socialized into yet. If you only check Slack and your Jira board in the morning, please have understanding for everyone else who also likes to work with email and phone. Remember: e-mail is NOT the new fax and will not die out.

Why write an email at all?

Now to the point. You want/need/need to write an e-mail. Before you open Outlook, Mail or Gmail, think for a moment if communicating via email is appropriate. If this is the case, the following considerations become important:

Write emails

What is the reason why you want to write an email?? (Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)

Like any other written word, an email should have a purpose. That’s what most mails do – but usually the target is not clear. If the goal is not clear, but watered down or distorted, an e-mail is quickly the start of a communication full of misunderstandings, confusion and annoyance. Here is a selection of possible targets:

  • The sender wants the addressee Inform about an event or a decision.
  • The sender wants the addressee ask for advice on a particular matter ask.
  • The sender wants the addressee to make a decision at a certain thing.
  • The sender wants, that the addressee does something.
  • The Results of a telephone call or a meeting should be "fixed.
  • Events should be accelerated or at least be reminded of it.
  • The sender wants an addressee Expose yourself in front of other recipients.

Oops? The last point makes us cringe? But sometimes such exposure is the goal. I could list some more "evil" intentions of an email. However, this one should suffice. If that’s your goal, you should think about the way you communicate anyway.

Anyway, there are two common mistakes when defining goals:

  • Sometimes we just want to inform someone – but they take it as a request (or the other way around). That’s what happens when the email is not clearly worded.
  • Sometimes you have multiple targets and want to inform two senders of the current situation and get a third to do something about it. This can end embarrassingly (for the third party). Do you want to? And: Is this all really clearly formulated in your e-mail?

As with almost any professional or personal "project," the goal becomes quite easily attainable if you formulate it at the outset. So take a breath and think about what you want to accomplish with this email. Make a note of it and look at it again before sending it out

When to write the e-mail?

Here are some rules for the best time. They will definitely help you:

  1. (At least) in the professional environment only email during normal office hours: When a client sends me an email at 11 p.m. on a Friday night with a call to action, I feel pressured by it. Besides, I have the feeling that this person should change his job. Because I don’t want my addressees to think about such things, I send my e-mails during office hours – even if I wrote the night before or on the weekend.
  2. Don’t send important e-mails until the next day: We know from psychological studies that sleep not only refreshes us, but is important for processing events. If you feel an important impulse or a strong affect and formulate this in an email, you should not send it immediately, but read it again the next morning. It makes every thought more rounded, better and more explainable.
  3. Reply within24 hours: If you reply to emails immediately, you’re quickly playing pointless email bitcoin chess and wasting your time on the mail program. Give each response its appropriate time. On the other hand, everyone can expect a response within a day. If the response takes longer, an "intermediate email" with the content "Got the message/question/request but it will take until…" provides a professional image.
  4. Avoid rush hour traffic and wireless holes: Even with high email addiction, there are times of day in an employee’s life when email tends to go under. This can vary. I try to avoid sending emails at times when the recipient is likely to be at work – and therefore has a lot of other emails to deal with. Equally inconvenient is the time around lunch and just before closing time. But, as I said, see what works best in YOUR recipient group.
  5. Send "fixer" emails first: For me, a "fixer" email is a written summary of an important phone call. Those who write these first are usually better able to get their point across.

Who should receive the e-mail?

Suggestion: For each senseless recipient, 10 Euros go into the spam fund? This will be expensive..

This is quickly told: When you have defined a goal, you send your emails to the people who want or need to achieve the goal with you.

I keep it like this All directly addressed recipient:s (i.e., those who are supposed to do something or are primarily informed) should be in the "To:" field. All others can be found in the "cc:" field. Then please also make sure that this is z.B. sometimes has to be reordered when replying to an e-mail.

And be careful: The more people you "inform", the more people will put you on their spam list and will no longer read your mail.

Notice: Include exactly those people in the distribution list who are affected, who have something to do, who absolutely have to be informed. And no one else.

What to write? The subject, the salutation and the first sentence

So we have a target and a group of recipients. Both must (!) Be clear in the subject line, salutation, and first sentence or paragraph.

If the addressee is to be informed, perhaps it would read like this:

Subject: Results of the meeting on the topic "XY

Salutation: Hello/Dear/Dear Klaus,

First sentence: To keep you up to date, I’ll summarize the results of our meeting today on the topic of "XY".

Should three people be informed and one should do something:

Subject: Current situation "vacation planning" with request for formatting

Salutation: Hello everyone / Dear ..,

First sentence: our vacation planning has been completed to the extent that you, Peter, can now put this into the right form.

Task schedule for all recipients:

Subject: Start "moon shot" project: task planning

Salutation: Hello all / Dear XXX, Dear YYYY u.s.w.,

First sentence: there is a lot to do for all of us, here is a suggestion for the distribution of tasks.

And so on. I think the core is clear: Everyone should be able to read out what their role is in achieving the goal as quickly as possible. And if something is "Urgent" or "Urgent", you can put that in the subject line too. Any mail formatting from Outlook& Co ignore – at least I do – completely.

This all seems a bit too direct and rude to you? Well, maybe sometimes you have to formulate the task distribution carefully. But if you are wishy-washy with the tasks, you will end up alone with the responsibility. Und I don’t know anyone (with whom I would like to work) who is not grateful for a clear salutation and a clear distribution of tasks.

Formulate the core message

A core message is simple: say what you have to say – and end. It’s not quite enough, because we’re not taking shorthand. So here’s a list of possible style rules:

  • Short words, short sentences: Our brains require a lot of energy and crave simple content. If you write a long, complicated sentence full of foreign words, you either haven’t thought it through or you want to throw sand in the recipient’s eyes. Good sentences are well thought out and understandable.
  • Address, language style: Since we know who the recipients are, we can address them directly – and in a way that is complex enough to suit them. Of course, the language style depends on the complexity of the request. But keep one thing in mind: Those who are addressed directly react more intensively. Important messages and calls to action should therefore be written in a personal sentence (z.B. "So you may realize that…" or "Therefore, I would like to request that you…") is well taken care of.
  • Beginning, middle, end: I have already written above about the ideal first sentences. After these it should be clear what it is about. In the middle part, the topic is expanded in as much detail as necessary and as briefly as possible. And at the end, the findings or. the calls to action are summarized once again.
  • Structured text wins: Everything that structures the text/content helps the recipients to recognize the goal and to cooperate. The most important elements are Text bolding, reasonable Setting paragraphs and Bulleted lists. Sometimes worthwhile Subheadings, which are bolded.
  • Reasonable length: The length of an email should be appropriate to its content. It’s best not to leave out any necessary information, but don’t "babble" either.
  • Avoid unnecessary questions and sitesteps: If the author of the email comes up with an excellent idea while writing, but it doesn’t directly contribute to achieving the goal, he should keep it to himself. All the sidebars confuse more than they help. New topic, new e-mail (and new distribution list).
  • And of course we write e-mails in the most correct German possible. Everything else is – not only in business dealings – embarrassing.

If you find many style rules for non-fiction texts in it, you have read quite correctly. Therefore: If you can write a good web text, you can also write a great e-mail.

Ach so: smileys or not? This is probably a matter of taste. I put these in, as well as the three thoughtless points at the end of a sentence, every now and then. But rarely…&

Confidentiality in emails? Yes, but..

How quickly an e-mail is sent to the wrong addressee? You’ve also had it happen to you that the mail program’s autocomplete conjured up the wrong name from the address book. Or? And you too have had emails forwarded to you that were NOT written for your eyes by the original author. So don’t expect your email to go ONLY where you want it to go.

  • Anticipate that your mail will be forwarded to your competitor.
  • Do not write personal statements in an email. It is always discussed over the phone.
  • Only what you would read out publicly at the next meeting belongs in an e-mail.

That doesn’t mean you can’t send confidential information. But once a data leak occurs, at least style should be maintained…

Quote correctly / stay on topic

If a piece of content goes back and forth between two (or more) people, each subsequent email becomes more complex. This can work well – but only if both (or all) are very disciplined. And that means:

  • Only what is needed is ever quoted. And that is then commented on in each case directly after.
  • Concrete statements to concrete points are inserted thus under their quotations (yes, every mail program can do that)!)
  • "Re: AW: Re: AW: Re: AW:" please shorten.

And, most importantly: If a new addressee is involved in the communication, he should not have to read through all the mails including their replies. Then you have to take the trouble to summarize "what happened so far.

I hate e-mails in which someone writes "Could you give us some advice on this matter"?" and under it hangs a long, inscrutable communication.

Calls to action and task assignments

Dare: Write in the email who has to do what. Only clear recommendations for action are actually read and interpreted accordingly. So a "Someone should try…" or "Maybe we should try…" leads to nothing or to the expectation that you will do it yourself.

Always formulate core messages and calls to action crystal clear and – graphically – in such a way that they can be perceived even when skimming the mail. Here’s how I try to do it:

@andreas: Could you please complete the table and send it to this mailing list?

@petra: After that please check the spelling and send everything to the customer.

The greeting

A real mood killer is "Thank you already for the quick completion of the addressed tasks." By doing so, you deprive the recipient of the freedom to accept (or reject) the addressed task in the first place. This is not only rude, but unwise. Because maybe he has a better idea – but you will never know it.

Otherwise, an e-mail seems more personal if there is no standard formula like "Best regards" underneath it. Why not send "relaxed", "cheerful" or "tense" greetings as well? You may be creative NOW.

The footer

Even with the footer, you can do neat nonsense…. (Photo by Siarhei Plashchynski on Unsplash)

There are legal requirements here, for example for corporations. However already the mutual respect should conjure the following information into the Footer:

  • complete Name
  • if necessary. Company (with all mandatory information such as company name and the legal form, full address, website of the company, competent registration court, registration number, the names of all managing directors and, in the case of an AG, of all board members and the chairman of the board)
  • E-mail-Address
  • Phone number
  • Address

To wit: In every (!) Email. Always.

This is good to justify. You probably also remember the situation when you were driving to an appointment – and didn’t have the house number in your head. Often you have an e-mail at hand – but if it doesn’t give an address, you have to google for the company and possibly find the address. find there in the imprint the details. Or, another example: You want to write an invoice and have to search for a long time for the company name. This sucks! So: In every (!) Email includes all these details. Let your mail program automate this.

Oh, one more thing about the footer: Because it is possibly "nicer", some of my addressees build it as a picture z.B. as a JPG. What could be worse? Because if the image is not scaled properly, the mail text will appear like the traces of fly’s feet in the smartphone. And, sometimes even worse: the phone number and email address must be transcribed to be used. This is especially bad if you are on the road and only have this data in your phone. This is one of the cruelest moments in digital life.

A proper text footer on the other hand does not destroy the rest of the email and can be used for calling, copying and navigating. And with a few settings in the mail program, it can also be made "beautiful". Voila!

Explain attachments in the text

If only to ensure trust in the attachments, each attached file should be addressed in the body of an e-mail. Be it images that may be difficult to understand without accompanying text, or Excel files in which you would never find what, for example, supports a statement in the email.

So: No attachment without explanation.

Answers? Yes, but without stress!

In a world where spam filters are becoming more and more stringent, it is necessary to confirm the receipt of e-mails in order to communicate smoothly by e-mail. But this does not have to be done immediately. I wrote above that you should reply to an e-mail after 24 hours, even if you can’t reply in detail yet.

One last advice for a better life

So far all clear, or. Just one more thought on frictionless emailing: Since I make sure to leave (almost) all e-mail a little bit, I and my fellow mailers are doing better. And this applies not only to important mails (which, see above, should be left overnight), but also to very simple answers. Even with these, it is good to think about it again and let our subconscious mind deal with it a little bit.

And anyway: If you answer every e-mail immediately, your mail partner must think of you, you have nothing else to do. That would be a pity, wouldn’t it?

eric Kubitz

The "Contentman" is my blog, playground and digital chance to express my thoughts. For many years I was a journalist – so maybe I have some ink in my blood. I earn my money as Managing Editor Multichannel Publishing at Wort& Picture Publisher. In addition, I serve as a I also coach and counsel clients on their writing and life goals.

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