Of the myriad communication tools at our fingers, emails are arguably best-suited for communicating longer or more in-depth information with colleagues and clients in a formal way.
But while it may be a quick way to deliver detailed information, those two factors alone make using the medium rife with complicated etiquette. Composing and sending emails needs to be done with thought - like any means of communication, it shapes your personal brand.
The way you manage emails has a real impact on your professional reputation - and the way you write them is crucial to landing your message in the right way. Power up your emailing by considering these five key points carefully before you press the send button.
Don’t be apologetic
Don’t go out of your way to avoid causing offence in emails. Trying to seem friendly and collaborative by using apologetic phrases such as ‘I hope you don’t mind, but…’ or ‘If you have a moment, please can you’ can diminish your authority.
Telegraph journalist Katie Russell conducted an experiment that confirmed this: ‘I created a male pseudonym, Andrew Johnson, and sent emails from a new address. In the headspace of my alter-ego – an assertive man in his mid-thirties who wears suits at the weekend – I didn’t feel the need to cushion my requests in endless pleasantries. On the whole, people responded faster and were more helpful.’
Be assertive and know your worth, says Michelle de Klerk, founder of networking club The Women’s Chapter. She says that women feel compelled to be friendly because of ‘unconscious gender bias’ – where assertive men are leaders, women are seen as bossy, which means that they often ‘subconsciously feel the need to soften their tone in order to be compliant, humble and liked’.
She advises women to be more confident in their emails. ‘You’re not “just checking in”, nor were you “wondering” - you are emailing to get an update or get the task done.’
Colleagues and clients are busy and don’t have time to scroll through reams of prose. Avoid one-line emails but ensure your email has a clear message - your reader is more likely to open and read it, and be sure to introduce yourself even if you’ve already met.
Streamline your message and get to the point; communicate your reason for emailing concisely and clearly, and make your call to action very easy to understand, with a deadline if you have one.
Be sure to give it a subject line that clearly states what the email is about. Don’t just hit reply if the email subject has changed - make it easy for your correspondent to spot and help when you need to search for an email thread later down the line.
Use the right tone of voice
Emails can be crucial for building professional relationships, so create a friendly rapport by injecting a little bit of warmth or personal reference into your emails, but without being overfamiliar or using exclamation marks, emojis or kisses.
Sometimes, softening your sign-off is all it takes to suggest a personal connection. ‘It is possible and necessary to convey warmth in an email with just a greeting and sign off,’ de Klerk advises - this can be something as simple as using ‘best wishes’ rather than the more formal ‘regards’.
Take the right time to reply
Give yourself time to go back over an email before you hit send – particularly a reply to someone else’s request, if you’re delivering bad news or tackling a difficult issue.
However, don’t make respondents wait. ‘Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious, organised, dependable and hardworking,’ says organisational psychologist Adam Grant in the New York Times. ‘And that matters. In a comprehensive analysis of people in hundreds of occupations, conscientiousness was the single best personality predictor of job performance.’
That said, it’s unwise to wait too long to reply, says Grant. ‘When researchers compiled a huge database of the digital habits of teams at Microsoft, they found that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager was being slow to answer emails.’
Don’t feel like you have to reply to every email
Work out which emails you should reply to. Not replying to emails is tantamount to saying you’re more important that the sender, says Grant. ‘“I'm too busy to answer your email” really means “Your email is not a priority for me right now”. That's a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It's full of other people's priorities.’
It’s clearly not possible to respond to every email, but reply to clients, and co-workers who are relying on your collaboration on a project.
‘Everyone occasionally misses an email,’ says Grant. ‘But if you’re habitually “too busy” to answer legitimate emails, there’s a problem with your process. It sends a signal that you’re disorganised — or that you just don’t care.’
If you’re just hopelessly behind on your inbox, at least set up an auto-reply giving people another channel where they can reach you. A Slack channel. Twitter. A phone number. Post-it notes. Carrier pigeon. Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all.’