Email Etiquette

Email is becoming a major—and in some places the preferred—mode of business communication. It is quick and very easy to use, and there is still something about it that feels rather informal. It doesn’t feel like writing a formal letter with heavy bond letterhead, matching envelope and hand-written signature. However, don’t let that lingering casual feeling fool you into thinking that you can get sloppy with your business emails. This is where first impressions are often made and where business relationships can be made or broken. 

Consider the following exchange. This was an actual correspondence between an artist (J) and the art organizer of a big musical event (D) who also happens to be a professor at a major American art school. For legal reasons, the names have been reduced to their initials and the name of the event has been removed. The artist is trying to get information on entering a piece (a banner) for consideration for the event: 

Hi D,
Two quick questions about the Banners. 1.) Is there any limit to the number of images we can submit? (I know last year it was three.) and 2.) If I'm from out of town, I can just email my image or do I have to mail it?
-J

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Hi J,
no limit on images. also, you could email me the preliminary images as long as you also fill out an image list with all of the info. I am not sure if the lage file images will go through the server though. maybe through u send it??
best,
D

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are you going to enter again this year??!
D

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I was planning on it. Is there something in the fine print that says I'm not allowed to?

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NO, please do!!

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Hi D,
Here are my email sized submissions for the exhibition along with the required info. Let me know if any of the images are selected and I will send the full size versions. Also, let me know if you need anything else.
Thanks,
J

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(A week goes by with no response from D)

Hi D,
Just wondering when we could expect to hear back as to whether we got into the Contest or not.
Thanks,
J

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very soon!
best.

 

How many times have we had a correspondence like this one, where one side is obviously trying to do business in a reasonably businesslike way and the other side is responding as if they are texting their pal about going out somewhere? The feeling that our artist had was one of being dismissed. He was communicating with a high-ranking art professor, someone of great education, professional respect and responsibility and he made his emails to her as concise and professional as he could. Her responses were anything but professional.

 

Where D Went Wrong

There are three things that stand out in any communication more than anything else: grammar, spelling and proper mechanics (capitalization, punctuation, etc.). You demonstrate your own professionalism and maintain your own credibility when your communications are free from obvious errors. Aside from a single use for emphasis, D uses no capital letters at all. Her entire communication is conducted in low case, which is fine for programming but looks terrible for professional communication. Add in the spelling and grammatical errors as well as D’s penchant for multiple punctuation marks at the end of her sentence fragments and it is no wonder that J was feeling a bit dismissed. 

D had chosen to communicate with him in the most unprofessional way she could short of cursing, which demonstrates a certain arrogant disdain on her part for our poor artist. If you don’t think that these things come through in the way you communicate with people, think about it some more. I say chosen because she actually works on a number of boards for a number of organizations. If this was how she communicated with everyone, she wouldn’t be there. This, therefore, had to be her conscious choice. 

Crafting a Proper email Correspondence

Perhaps the way D treated J works in the world of academe, where arrogance and tenure go hand-in-hand, reputation trumps history and results are purely subjective; but in the practical world of business, where the bottom line is the final, objective judge of all actions and decisions, such an exchange would have resulted in D’s discipline or even dismissal. 

Why? Because it not only puts the writer, D, in a bad light, it also puts the company in a bad light. Dealing with people like that hurts the reputation of the business, hurts its brand and so makes it more difficult to compete. There are, however, some simple rules you can follow that will keep this sort of thing from happening to your company.

Keep it Professional

Your goal here is to make your communication clear and credible. Make sure your email address is informative and not “cute” or “suggestive.” Something like hotlips69 or iamironman is just not suitable for business. Your personal mySpace page, fine; your accountancy practice, no. What’s more, you don’t want to use abbreviations—yes, take the time to write everything out—and you don’t want to use emoticons (the little animated smiley faces). They are not cute or funny. They are annoying and they distract the reader from your message. Finally, avoid jargon unless you are communicating with someone very familiar with it. 

Keep it Grammatical

Proofread your email before sending it and if it is long, have someone else proofread it as well. Two sets of eyes are always better than one. Also, proofread it outloud. Your ear will catch mistakes that your eye will miss. Make sure your sentences are, in fact, sentences, that your words are spelled correctly and that your punctuation is right. After all, nothing stands out more clearly—or destroys your credibility faster—than a poorly constructed message. 

Keep it Concise

The old writer’s advice is, if you can say it in a paragraph, say it in a sentence. Being concise is not simply writing short, choppy sentences. It really means writing no more than you have to in order to get the point across. So, before writing you need to know what you want to say. Then, when you write, say it and clearly and succinctly as possible, but remember to include all the pertinent details and information needed for the reader to understand your point. This said, you also need to mind your tone. You want to avoid coming across as demanding, curt or demeaning. The tone you are looking for is one that makes you seem friendly and approachable but also respectful. 

Keep it Polite

Use please and thank you and unless you are on a first name basis with your correspondent, address the person you are communicating with by their correct title or honorific; Mrs. Jones, or Judge Smith. Also, considering the threat of malware, you don’t want to send an attachment until you have either been invited to do so or you have cleared it with the person you are sending it to. When you do get permission, make sure that the attachment is not too large for your recipient’s email system to handle and that the files are in the right format for your recipient to open. 

The Bottom Line

Your email is your business’ voice and for it to serve you effectively, it has to be clear, the message concise and informative, and the tone pleasing to the reader. Terse, poorly constructed messages send warnings against doing business with this company rather than the information they were supposed to convey. Protect yourself from the willful mistakes that D made by following the rules of good email communications and by making sure the TO: line on your email is blank until you are done crafting your message. It’s the last line of defense against sending an email before it’s ready. Your brand name will thank you.