8 formal email etiquette tips you should remember

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Do you write a lot of emails at work?

Aside from phone calls, it’s one of the most common ways to send out and receive information. To help you craft clear, professional and pleasant emails, here are eight important guidelines you should follow:

  1. Write concisely but respectfully

    A formal email is formatted like a letter. It is usually composed of a greeting, body, and closing. However, it should not be as long as a letter. Usually, a paragraph would consist of 1 to 3 short sentences. Your entire email should be 3-4 short paragraphs. To be concise, use simple words and get to the point. You should be able to mention your main message in the first few sentences. But even if it’s straight to the point, your email’s tone should always be respectful. Avoid using emojis and never use all caps.

    Watch this video from engVid to learn 5 useful email expressions:

    Tip: If you’re writing an extremely important email, for instance, a job application or a reply to your boss, send it to yourself first. This will allow you to do some final editing and see if the format is correct.

  2. Have the right recipient

    Double-check your recipient’s email address. Make sure that it is the right one. If you are replying to an email, be careful about hitting “send all,” unless you really want everyone to read the email. Remember that busy people will not appreciate an email that has no information they can act on or use.

    Learn the proper use of the To, CC, and BCC fields:

    • To – this is where you place the email address of the main recipient or recipients. In this field, you only include people you require action from.
    • CC (carbon copy) – you add people in the CC line if you want to inform them about the subject, but they do not need to act or reply. Just to emphasize, if you have been cc’d, you do not need to reply.
    • BCC (Blind carbon copy) – there are two instances where you can use this field: 1) if you are sending an email to many people who need the same information but you do not want them to see each other’s email addresses; and/or 2) in sensitive situations where you don’t want the main recipient to see that there are others added to the conversation. For example, if you are in training and dealing with your first customer via email. Your manager may request to be in the BCC to know how you are handling the transaction and to see if you need support (especially if it is a difficult customer).

    Tip: Some people CC the boss of a person they’re sending an email to thinking that it will guarantee immediate action. Avoid doing this unless you were asked to or there was a clear agreement to do so. This may undermine the recipient’s authority and make them feel less trusted.

  3. Write a clear subject line

    Don’t write “Hello” or “Hey there” because these are vague and informal. The subject line should tell the recipient what your message is about. Keep it short and simple, for example, “Request for a meeting” or “Project X deadlines.” It does not need it to be catchy unless you are selling something.

    Tip: Don’t write the subject line in all caps. Also, don’t write URGENT! or mark your email as such when it’s not. This can be annoying. If you need immediate feedback or action, it may be better to make a phone call.

  4. Attach appropriate files

    When attaching a file, make sure that it’s compatible with your recipient’s software. Also make sure that it is virus-free. Don’t attach files larger than 5 MB. Compress it, then attach or better yet send it via a file sharing site (e.g. Google Drive, Dropbox, among others).

    Tip: Label your files correctly for the benefit of the receiver. This means making the file name self-evident and easy to understand (for example, TChanresume.doc or Project_brief_final.pdf). This also prevents you from sending the wrong files or wrong versions of a file. If you are sending several files, keep them in one folder before attaching to an email for easier browsing.

  5. Forwarding emails

    When forwarding an email, add a short note or explanation why you are sending it. You can also delete some elements that the recipient doesn’t need to see, like other recipients’ email addresses, especially if it’s a long list.

    Tip: Avoid forwarding chain emails, suspicious marketing emails with links in the body of the message, or those that do not have professional value (jokes, stories, trivia, etc.). These would just clutter your colleagues’ inboxes.

  6. Proofread before sending

    Read through your email once or twice to check spelling, grammar, or missing words. Double check important names, figures, and attachments. Also, see if you are using the appropriate font and font-size. Often times, rushing results in poorly worded and error-riddled emails. Remember, your email is part of your work output and is a reflection of you.

    Tip: While writing the email, don’t write the recipient’s address on the “to” line yet. Instead, add it only after you have checked your email and proofread it. This will prevent you from accidentally sending an incomplete email full of mistakes.

  7. Answer emails as promptly as you can

    As much as possible, reply to emails within the day or at least the next day. If you can’t answer right away, send an email saying that you are working on it and will provide what is needed shortly. The recipient will appreciate your professionalism and give you enough time to work on what is being requested.

    Tip: If you have not received a response within 3-5 days, you can send a follow-up email or call the intended recipient. Make sure that your tone is polite – the email may not have reached the person due to technical reasons or it may have landed in the person’s spam folder.

  8. Follow office protocol

    Offices usually have guidelines about sending and receiving emails. Know them. Examples of these would be using a standard signature or a standard greeting/closing especially for customer-oriented or marketing firms, not opening attachments especially if you do not know the sender, using only your office email (not your personal email), and others.

    Tip: Privacy policies are strictly followed in Canada. If you handle personal and confidential information in your line of work, be clear about privacy protocols. Generally, be careful about sharing email addresses, names, phone numbers, financial or health information of your colleagues or clients online.

Sources: 13 annoying email mistakes even smart people make, Minda Zetlin, Inc.com; and 5 rules of forwarding an email, Net M@nners. Accessed August 16 and 17, 2017.

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