Earlier this month, Judy was asked to deliver an email session as part of a training day for The Sentence Works. The two of us spent an enjoyable few hours scouring our inboxes  (and deleted folders) for emails that were confusing, badly written off-putting, or in some cases, all three.

If I’m honest, we were spoilt for choice. Many writers fail to follow basic but effective rules. This results in sloppy, unprofessional emails which are instantly deleted.

So if you feel your work emails are not having the desired effect in the workplace, use this checklist to see how you can improve them.

1.     Subject Line

Try to be specific.  A subject line which says something like ‘media request: new kitchen gadgets’ or ‘extension of May deadline’ works because it gets to the point. This kind of subject line tells the reader what the email is about – and why they need to read it – in a short and snappy way.

Don’t try and get every single piece of information in this one line – a long and wordy subject line can be off-putting. A recent report suggested between 6-10 words is the ideal length.

Try not to be too smart as clever-clever tasters can just leave the recipient baffled. If they’re feeling confused before they even open the message, there’s a good chance they might not even bother reading on.

Personally I get irritated when someone puts ‘ re:’ on a subject line even though we’ve never been in contact before (it makes it look as if they are replying to your email). It makes me feel I’m being tricked, which isn’t an ideal starting point for productive communication.

Also check for spelling mistakes as first impressions really do count. When we received an email with the word “queezy” instead of “queasy” in the subject line recently, we just laughed  because it looked so unprofessional.

2.     Saying Hello

Ideally address the email to someone by name rather than just a job title, or a generic “hi”. Make sure you spell it correctly as there’s nothing worse than being referred to as ‘Julie’ if you are actually a ‘Julia’.

‘Hello/Hi/Dear/Good morning…’ are all acceptable ways of addressing the recipient. Use their first name or first name and surname, but not ‘Mr Adrian Monti’ (It sounds as if it’s from a spam emailer asking me invest in some dodgy overseas deal). If the individual has a relevant title, such as doctor or professor, use that, and note how they reply. If they are ‘Dave’ rather than ‘Dr David Smith’ when they get back, go with that.

Again I find it slightly hostile if I receive an email simply addressed to ‘Adrian’ – it just sounds a bit aggressive. Oddly when I spoke to the person who sent me one like this recently, he couldn’t have been more different from that slightly angry sounding way he addressed to me.

3.     Opening Line

Be polite and briefly explain who you are and why you are contacting them. I always think ‘I hope you are well?’ is friendly without being excessively chatty or obsequious.

I secretly hate those slightly over-familiar ones which can backfire badly. These are the ones when, for example, someone you haven’t worked with before asks if you’ve done all your Christmas shopping yet or are you looking forward to a beer after work today. For all they know, I might not celebrate Christmas and may be strictly teetotal.

If you’re unsure if it falls into this category, imagine using it as an opening line at a networking event. So something like ‘I hope you’re enjoying the lovely summer weather?’ sounds fine in this sort context and probably in an email too. 


4.     Tone

The tone should be brisk, professional and friendly. Avoid sarcasm as it can easily be misconstrued. A good rule to use if you think something maybe a little risqué, is it’s best not to say it. Ask yourself ‘If this story was splashed across the front page of my local newspaper, would I feel embarrassed?’ If so, don’t write it.

5.     Structure

There’s nothing worse than scrolling down screen after screen of words you’re expected to plough through to find the important and relevant points. Instead try to break it up with paragraphs, headers and bullet points if it’s really long. As for length, try and keep it to the main points and attempt to edit out any waffle. We suggest aiming for 300 words maximum as a rough marker.

 If you have a lot of points to ask, it’s often a good idea to write in your first paragraph or two something like ‘there are three points I would like to clarify with you’ so the recipient knows they need to address all three questions.  I often find if you put several points in an email, they might answer some but forget to respond to all of them which can be maddening and cause delay.

6.     Endings

Try and pull the email together in that last line or two, especially if there are a few points you have covered.

Writing something like ‘thanks for your time’ or ‘I appreciate you reading this email’ is polite and shows you acknowledge their possible assistance or advice. And if you want to convey that you do expect a reply, something like ‘I look forward to hearing from you’ is a good way of inviting a response. If you need something by a set time, you could say something like ‘I’d be grateful if you could get back to me by Thursday.’

7.     Signing Off

Ending ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’ which you might use in a conventional letter may sound a little antiquated for emails, but is still just about acceptable. I suggest this is best used now when you want to show a little respect to someone when you first contact them.

‘Best wishes/ All the best/ Kind regards/ Thank you once again/’ are all a little better.

Do avoid trendy sounding phrases in the early days of your correspondence, especially if you don’t really know the person that well. Phrases like ‘cya’ or ‘later’ are far too casual in a business context.

And remember to keep things business-like if you’re communicating about work issues. Although it’s a bit of a fashion especially in the PR world, avoid signing off with kisses. Remember it’s a potential client/ colleague you’re dealing with and not your great aunt Nelly! Don’t forget to put your full name, job title if it’s relevant and contact details on the email below your name too. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to contact you.