3 Tips for Mastering Email at Work
Sandra E. Lamb provides some helpful tips for professional emailing in this excerpt from her new book, Writing Well for Business Success: A Complete Guide to Style, Grammar, and Usage at Work.
Today’s workplace is a business-by-email world. To succeed here, mastering the email monster is key. But before you even approach your business inbox, it’s vital that you know your organization’s “rules of the road”—those corporate guidelines or policies about using email in your unique workplace.
Whatever your organization’s rules, to work best, your email needs to be brief, focused, and complete. Here are three simple keys to get you started toward that corner office:
Rule #1—Focus on Your Reader
You’ve gotten those emails that left you scratching your head because, not only didn’t you know the answer, you had no clue about the question. So before you start, evaluate what your reader knows about your subject, so you can aim your message properly. (For example, the email announcement to department employees responsible for hosting a corporate open house will have very different content from the email announcement sent to potential open house attendees.)
Rule #2—Think Through Your Message (Before You Start)
Yes, you may have a brilliant idea, and your fingers may be itching to get started because you want to be the first to get your idea out there. But wait just a nanosecond. Remember, your email needs to offer new and valuable information to be successful. You don’t want to be the employee who just adds more email fodder to already overloaded inboxes. And don’t, for goodness sake, shoot off one of those mindless “me too” messages—unless you’re asked to weigh in with an opinion on someone else’s idea. Stifle that reflexive "I agree with John ... " impulse.
Think about that new and valuable idea. And jot down a few notes or key words. Then organize them to put them in logical order.
Now, you may need to back up what you say with additional authoritative information. So complete any necessary research to make sure your message has real meat and potatoes.
Rule #3—Edit, Edit, Edit
Here’s where you can really shine. If you take the time to pare down your message to its essential best, eliminating any and all unnecessary words, you’ll stand out from your coworkers. Look for the adverbs, “-ly,” words, and those shadowy, nonsense formal-sounding phrases, like “in regard to,” “deemed it necessary to,” and “in the interest of time.” Eliminate them. Place modifiers close to the words they modify for clarity; trim complete sentences that don’t carry water; and make sure most of your sentences are fitted with strong subjects followed directly by active and precise verbs. (Yes, you’ll want to vary sentence structure occasionally for interest.)
To make sure you’ve polished your brilliant idea to its gleaming best, give it a little shelf time, stand up and stretch, or go for a brief walk; then come back and read it again. Is it still the stuff of genius? Read it aloud to yourself to double check. Or, if it’s very important, and you have an expert trustworthy friend or colleague—and enough time—ask that person to read it and give you an opinion.
When you’re satisfied with your message, give it a powerful subject line, and fill in the “TO” addressee(s). Now, hit “SEND."
For all of Sandra Lamb’s illuminating tips and instructions that you can use to make your business communications get you into the board room, order your own desktop reference copy of Writing Well for Business Success.
Sandra E. Lamb began professional life as a technical writer for a medical instrumentation company in California, and quickly learned that writing skill at work has nothing to do with being a genius. The engineers and experts she worked with were brilliant, but very challenged when it came to communicating. She became the writer of marketing, public relations, and advertising copy, and CEO of her own company. She is the author of a number of books on writing, including How to Write It ,Third Edition; Personal Notes; and 3000 Power Words and Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. She lives and works in Denver.
Photo courtesy of Sandra E. Lamb.