Whether you use Outlook or Gmail or any email platform in fact, email has become a ubiquitous aspect of the office worker experience. It is often the first thing we look at as soon as we login to our work computer, where one study by McKinsey revealed that 28% of our working days is dedicated to answering and reading emails. And email exhaustion is a thing, where the average office worker receives 121 emails in a day.
These statistics may seem a bit startling on first glance, but the more I think about it, it makes sense. I know from personal experience of sending an email, I spend a significant amount of time thinking about how to structure and craft it for the intended reader. And I can also relate to the experience of an inundation of emails. When I went away for a two-day training course in a previous workplace, I found on my return that I had over 200 emails in my inbox!
The importance of email is further accentuated in this ongoing climate of remote working brought on by COVID-19. Here at contentgroup, we have some colleagues working at home, while others work in the office. While it was previously commonplace to meet with clients at our office, a café or a client site, its more common to instead use tools of digital engagement including teleconferencing, phone calls and email.
Despite the significance of email in office communications, feedback on emails is something that most do not get as part of a performance review or on a day-to-day basis. Email etiquette is something that is often learnt through experience and practice rather than formal training. So to help guide you in your emailing journey, here at contentgroup, we’ve put together a list of tips for you.
- Less is more
Having worked in a variety of workplaces and successfully graduated university, I thought for a long time that I was an effective written communicator. It was only after doing a communications training course at a former APS department that I worked in, that I realised I was woefully wrong.
In the abovementioned training course, one of the exercises was to write a mock work email. When my training partner evaluated my email, his number one feedback was about length. While other training participants had written emails of around two-thirds of the length of my email, my mistaken belief was that more words and my perchance for verbosity made written communication more sophisticated. But while flourishes and meandering language is suitable for a Jane Austen novel, professional email correspondence is definitely not the right place for your rambling train of thoughts.
In the modern work environment, many are time poor with competing work priorities. So the key takeaway here is that you want to make your email as easy as possible to be read. To adopt the ‘less is more’ philosophy, consider the following:
- If you have a long sentence, try to break it up into shorter sentences rather than using commas.
- Don’t repeat yourself in your email. If a point is important to drive home, then check out Tip 3 below for how to emphasise key points.
- Don’t use overcomplicated jargon unless it’s relevant to your work area.
For more tips for writing in simple English, we even have a blog from my colleague, Luke, to help you out.
- Use paragraphs
Not only is the content of your email important, but structure is equally as important to allow readability. This is where the power of a paragraph comes in. For me personally, paragraphs are a helpful way to navigate information in an email that I’ve received that is long and choc-full of information.
When structuring your email, paragraphs should segment different thoughts or to show development from idea to another. It reduces mental exhaustion on the part of the reader and makes the information less intimidating to read.
Shorter emails should have between one to three lines in a paragraph. For a longer email, try not to go beyond five sentences per paragraph. After all, you’re writing an email not an academic paper.
And don’t be afraid to include a one line paragraph here and there in your email. It emphasises that that a particular sentence is salient.
- Emphasise the key points
In my former life as a public servant, strict deadlines in the form of Question Time Briefs, Ministerial submissions and policy briefs were a regular fixture of work life. When sending a time-sensitive request via email, it was common email etiquette to underline the key points of the email.
This is a practice you can easily implement as well. It is a great way for the email recipient to quickly skim an email and find the key information. For example, if you require input from the recipient for a piece of work, underline what is required and what the deadline is. While I personally like using underlines in my emails, highlighting, bolding or using coloured text are other ways you could experiment with to emphasise the key messages of your email.
When choosing which points to emphasise, try to only emphasise one key point per paragraph. Otherwise, it detracts from your email.
- Edit, edit, edit
Nothing looks less professional than an email full of typos and sentences that do not make sense. Understandably, these errors can easily fall through the cracks in a fast-paced workplace. But a proofread is always necessary. You can even download a free web extension to automatically detect spelling and grammar mistakes, such as Grammarly.
For an email that does not need to be sent out straightaway, consider coming back to it after your lunch break or leaving it to the next morning. Also consider getting a co-worker to proofread over it, as a pair of fresh eyes is always helpful.
- The subject line not an afterthought
So you’ve finally composed your email – congratulations! But alas, your journey is not yet over as you still need a killer subject line. We all know that it is a cardinal sin to send an email without a subject line. But when we do bother to include it, I know that I am guilty of only thinking about it for all of four seconds.
To maximise the potential of your recipient opening and responding to your email in a timely fashion, it is important to make your subject line stand out in their cluttered inbox. So think of an email subject like a newspaper headline. Keep the subject short but detailed. For example, instead of writing ‘meeting’, provide a bit more detail and context such as writing ‘Friday weekly team meeting’. Also consider putting the more important words at the beginning of the subject line. This is because when you receive an email on your device of choice, you only see a preview of the email subject line in your inbox.
While different organisations, departments and teams have different email communication practices, the underlying thread is about effectively communicating a message. Learning to write a good email takes time and practice, but hopefully these tips can guide you to compose an email with clarity and succinctness.