Writing email is seemingly becoming a lost art — with the proliferation of Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and other social media platforms our focus and skills are shifting to short, informal, instant communication. However, in the professional world, knowing how to craft a good email can be the defining factor of your first impression, influence the development of your relations with a person, and even determine your job prospects. Email is not easy — there is no secret formula for the perfect email. However, by following a few simple rules and guidelines, it's possible to quickly and effortlessly write very professional emails. Essentially, a good professional email is short, unambiguous, and has a clear purpose.
Keep it Short
The most valuable resource you can ever request from a person is time. Money can be repaid or earned again, but time is gone forever. Email is meant for concise communication — no one wants to read a wall of text, especially when there is no clear "ask" in the beginning. By keeping your emails short and concise you show that you respect your recipient and value their time.
One habit that I've developed lately is including a "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read), which is a simple summary of the main topic of the email. I usually put it in bold at the bottom of the email, so that my recipient finds it easier to process and doesn't miss any information buried in the middle. If the email is extremely long, I will at times include the tl;dr at the top.
In general, I try to keep my emails within five sentences. This of course depends on the type of email — if this is a quick intro, then I want to take as little time as possible. If on the other hand this is a detailed email with extensive information as requested by my recipient, then the rule is adjusted.
With every email that I send, I try to avoid what I call "ping-ponging". For example, observe the following (lengthy) exchange:
Hello, my name is Ivan. It was nice meeting you. I hope to stay in touch.
Hi Ivan, it really was nice meeting you.
I'd really like to get lunch with you sometime to discuss our idea. When are you free?
I'd like that, how's Monday?
Monday doesn't work, how about Tuesday?
And on it goes. This is a bit exaggerated, but I've both witnessed and been part of exchanges like this. Compare this to the following email:
Hello, my name is Ivan. It was great meeting you — I really enjoyed our conversation about (some idea here). I'd really like to continue the dialogue. Are you available for lunch sometime? I'm generally free Monday/Wednesday/Friday, but this coming week I'll only be free M/F. My cell is 123-555-1234. Let me know if you are interested, and what times work best for you.
Sounds great. Let's do Friday at 11 at (local coffee shop). I'll give you a call when I get there.
Do you see the difference? Instead of forcing my conversation partner to read 5+ emails from me, I presented very clearly what I thought about the meeting, expressed interest in continued dialogue, and shared the relevant information. All of this in 7 sentences. The person responds, and the case is closed. We move on with our lives. You want to avoid ping-ponging. When sending a resume for a job, include your phone and availability. When inviting someone to lunch, tell them what times work best and any food preferences. When introducing people, include the relevant details for both parties.
The order in which you present your thoughts in an email can be central to the overall impression. Notice the difference between the following two emails:
Hello John, it's been a while! How are the kids? I hope your vacation was nice, and that work is good. I really like your writing style, and think you're an awesome person. By the way, I need you to do me a huge favor that will take up a lot of your time.
Hi John. Hope you're doing well today. The reason I'm reaching out right now is because I need you to do me a huge favor that will take up a lot of your time. I'm really sorry to bug you about this, I know you're very busy.
Now, business aside, how have you been? I hope the vacation was fun and work isn't too exhausting. I've always enjoyed your writing, and am looking forward to your next article.
Thanks so much, Ivan.
Notice your overall impression of each email, and how they differ. The first one leaves you feeling like all the polite fluff at the beginning was just an excuse to smooth the presentation of the request, and as a result, the questions and compliments feel fake. In the second one, we see that there is a clear request, and then the person used the occasion of the email to also inquire about the side project of the recipient.
In general, I've found that I have more success with the second type of email. Considering that time is valuable, the second email better allows the recipient to scan it, immediately get the action item out, and then come back and read the polite fluff if they have the time. Notice that I broke up the email into small paragraphs by topic, thus making it easier to scan.
Present a Clear Purpose — Use the Subject Line!
I've touched on this earlier in the article, but want to stress this point once more. Too often people send emails where it's unclear why they were sent. There should be an obvious purpose — you are either asking a question, requesting a certain action to be done, or building relations by sending a compliment, an apology, or some gratitude. This should be obvious from the subject line, without even opening the email. Observe the following subject lines and situations:
- "Follow-up from 'Tech Conference' — Ivan" — I met someone and want to introduce myself or build relations.
- "[ART 8] Ivan — Homework Clarification" — I'm emailing my art professor, clearly stating the class, my name, and my issue.
- "Introductions: Sergey and Artem" — I'm sending an intro email to connect two new people.
- "Request: Provide feedback on professional site" — I'm asking for a favor from a reasonably close acquaintance.
This purpose should also be reflected in the email. At times, you will need to combine several "asks" in one email. In this case, you can either combine them in the subject separated with commas, or pick the main one and mention the other one in the tl;dr. Also, this goes without saying, but if your tl;dr has nothing to do with your subject line and "ask," you should rewrite your email.
Greeting and Signatures
An email is a cross between a letter and an instant message. As such, it's important to consider how you greet your recipient, and how you sign off. I use the following greetings:
- "Hello Name," — A neutral email, mostly for professional settings.
- "Hi Name," — Once a professional relationship evolves, switch to "hi." Since I mostly email people older and of higher status, I only switch after they email me "hi." If the difference in status is very large, I'll stay with "hello."
- "Name," — Usually for short communications, used when clarifying some last minute information, or quick requests.
- "Hey," — Only between friends.
For the most part, use whatever greeting you would use when approaching your recipient in person. If in doubt, err on the side of more formal. It's less of a faux pas than the opposite.
The process is similar for closing remarks:
- "Thanks," — My default one. If I have a big ask, I might say "Thanks very much," or "much appreciated."
- "Best" or "All the best" — Used for building relations and offering information.
- "—Ivan" — If the email is very short, I might just sign with my name.
Now, in most modern email clients it's possible to set up an automatically appended email signature. There are many opinions out there, so I'll just show you mine and explain why I made it the way that it is.
-- Ivan Smirnov B.A. Computer Science | University of California, Berkeley | Class of 2015 https://www.linkedin.com/in/ismirnov | http://ivansmirnov.name
Let's break it down line by line. As you can see, the first one includes two dashes. This is a pretty common way to indicate the start of a signature. It's short enough that it doesn't cut across the page, and long enough that it's clear this is a new section. The second line is my name. It might seem redundant, since my name is in my email address, but this might get lost if this email gets forwarded. The third line is my status and qualifications. At the time of this writing I am a student, so I include my degree, place of education, and graduation date. This helps minimize ping-pong, since no one has to email me to ask where I study and when I'm graduating. Finally, I include links to my online presence. For now, this is my LinkedIn and personal site. I debated including my GitHub, but ultimately decided it made the line too long and kept it out. Notice that I included the full URL rather than a named hyperlink. The reason for this is often emails will get their text attributes reset, or maybe it will get printed. A written out URL is more fail safe.
Some Final Thoughts
Like many things on the internet, emails live forever. Copies will be stored on every SMTP relay, your outbox, the receivers' inboxes, and many other places. Treat every email that you send as if it will be printed and hung with your name on it. There is no undeleting or unsending. Never compose and send emails while drunk or otherwise impaired. Keep in mind that you are creating a permanent paper trail, so if you ever end up in court, your emails may be read as part of the trial.
Proofread your emails. It's absolutely awful for your image if you have typos, bad grammar, or improper punctuation. If writing emails is not your strong point, find an editor or ask a friend for help.
Be prompt. If it's an important email, try to get back ASAP. If you can't find the time to sit down and do it, at least send a quick note acknowledging that you got the email, and promising to properly reply at a later date.