Email has become part of daily life for literally billions of people, so the ability to communicate effectively in writing generally—and for email specifically—is a fundamental skill for your success at work and your career advancement.
But you need to know how to do email well, so you can have the greatest influence and credibility. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t come automatically. Email is unique—distinct from texting, IMing, DMing, pinging or any of the other ways of communicating.
Ultimately, working successfully with email takes intentionality—and the ability to balance multiple dynamics from professionalism and tone to accessibility and authenticity.
The Email Superhighway
With your use of email, you’re part of the masses of people on a superhighway of e-traffic. In fact, 4.3 billion people use email daily according to Hubspot. In addition, 300 billion emails are sent each day, with about 127 emails sent per person, based on data from WP Dev Shed. According to a study by Grammarly and the Harris Poll, 82% of knowledge workers say working remotely increases the need to be a better communicator, and 52% agree that when you communicate well asynchronously (think: different times, different places via email), your job can be more flexible.
The implications? Clearly, email is ubiquitous and it’s the preferred method to communicate and exchange information for millions of people—so you’re wise to use it well. In addition, people are flooded with email—so you’re also smart to be especially effective in how you communicate. After all, with the deluge of email, you want people to prioritize yours for reading and responding.
Another important fact: Communication is rarely neutral. Instead, every time you interact with someone—through email or otherwise—you’re influencing the relationship. And you want to enhance it, rather than detract from it.
As you consider professionalism in your emails, you’ll want to start with being selective about when you’re using email. Instant messaging or chatting on a shared platform is better for quick notes to people you know well and in situations when you need a more immediate reply on something simple. Email is better when the information you have to share is more detailed or complex, when you’ll need to refer to the response chain later or when you don’t know someone as well.
When you’re using email, here’s how you take a professional approach.
Be Selective and Find the Right Balance
One of the first rules of writing a professional email it to find a balance between being business-like and friendly. You’ll want to open with a cordial comment (“I hope you are well” or “I hope you’re enjoying the start of the spring weather”) and then move into your message. If you know a bit about someone, it’s also a good idea to personalize the pleasantry—for example, “I hope you had a great vacation.” Overall, a brief statement is an effective way to set the tone.
You will also want to make your content accessible by getting to the point rather quickly—ensuring people don’t have to read a dissertation before they understand your main topic. You can achieve this with a summary statement early in the email followed by background, rationale and restatement of what you’re looking for.
You’ll need to be concise, but also avoid being curt. Provide enough background and context so people can understand what you’re sharing or asking for, and anticipate the questions they might have, proactively providing necessary information. Also be sure to be clear about your expectation, for example, if you need their input by a certain date.
Emails are also effective when they’re easy to read visually. Make use of simple formatting like headings or highlighting to reinforce key points or get attention for something you’re requesting. Just remember to keep the layout rather minimal since it doesn’t always translate between systems. You also want to ensure any formatting you’re using is contributing to the core message and the efficiency of reading the message. And avoid using design for decoration or to be cute.
Ensure High Standards
Another fundamental element of a professional email is maintaining high standards. Your email is an extension of you so demonstrate your commitment to excellence. Include sentences which are complete and grammatically correct. Avoid being too wordy or redundant, avoid slang and be sure your work is free of typos or mistakes. Also be sure you remember to attach the file you mention in the content.
In your effort to develop and polish your email, generally more is more. When your message is going to more people or it is about a more important topic or when it contains more information, you’ll want to put more effort into it. In these cases, take more time to write, edit and proofread.
You’ll also want to ensure you’re authentic but also attentive to your audience. Adjust how you communicate based on who you’re emailing. Be yourself, of course. But if you’re emailing a large group, a customer (or potential customer) or someone you don’t know as well, you’ll want to be more business-like and include less personal content. If you’re ever in doubt about how formal an email should be, it’s usually better to err on the side of being more, rather than less, formal.
Consider that every email is asking for something. At a minimum, you’re seeking someone’s time to read and become aware of a topic, and you’re frequently asking someone to respond or take action. You’ll want to be confident with your ask, but also be appropriately deferential, thanking them for their time, their input or expertise.
Be Empathetic and Efficient
Being professional in an email is a demonstration of respect for your reader. If you know someone really well, you can consider sending a brief note with minimal detail, but even for a quick request of a business colleague, you should include a salutation, complete sentences and a “thank you” to close the note.
Also be empathetic to the receiver’s experience, and make things easy for them. Use a subject line which refers to the content of the email, rather than something too casual or jaunty. This will make it easier for people to remember to respond or refer to your email later.
If you’re sending a follow up which references a previous attachment, ensure it’s attached to the latest email, so the reader doesn’t have to track back to a previous trail to find it. And if you’re referring to something in a chain of past communication, copy and paste it or provide a summary, so your reader doesn’t have to comb through the history.
You can also use the rule of five to make your emails as professional and effective as possible. Strive to keep emails brief enough that they will take no more than five minutes to read, include no more than five key points and require no more than five volleys to resolve. If emails require more than these, they may work better as phone calls, quick meetings or video chats.
Keep it Positive
It’s also wise to use a positive tone for your emails. Even if you’re handling a tricky subject, you can express things constructively. When you do, data from the Grammarly poll shows it will help you work together with others. In fact, when communication had a positive tone, 62% of people responded more quickly, 57% were more responsive to future requests, 48% responded with higher quality and 59% perceived the sender more positively.
You’ll also want to ensure you’re careful not to send an email in the heat of emotion, frustration or anger. If you’re upset, you can write an email and then give yourself time to cool off and revisit it later. You may decide to edit it, or you may even choose not to send it. But it’s rarely a good idea to send an email when you’re highly irritated or annoyed.
A Reflection On You
Overall, professionalism is about demonstrating integrity, reliability, commitment, engagement and calmness—as well as empathy and respect for others. Think of your email as a reflection of who you are—your demeanor, character and approach. Be your best and it will come through in your email.