How to use email like a pro (and stop annoying everybody)

Despite the fact that most of us are connected to our email accounts all day most days, there are still some mistakes that far too many people make. Poor communications can damage your career – and when you are using email, there’s a written record of your blunders. Here’s how to dodge the pitfalls and use email like a professional.

Start off with a greeting

Always open your email by greeting your recipient. “Dear Amy,” “Hello Tom,” “Hi Team.” It can seem off-putting if your email launches into a paragraph of text without a friendly opening identifying your intended audience. My colleague Elizabeth has written an article about which email openers receive the best results. (The answer may surprise you.) Read on for the email closings that deliver the best results.

Use proper grammar and spelling

Whether you’re writing a formal email to business partners or just a quick update to colleagues, your grammar and spelling matter. Incomplete sentences, typos, or misused words can all hurt your credibility and make you look dumb or careless. Of course, you know the difference between there and their and its and it’s, but when you use the wrong one in an email you are providing written evidence to the contrary. Again, there’s a record. If you are putting your name on it, get it right.

When you’ve done writing your email, don’t hit send immediately. Look away from your screen, and take a deep breath. Then look back and carefully read over your own message for accuracy before sending it.

Include a relevant subject line

Most people receive a large volume of emails daily now. Do your recipients a favour and let them know what you’re writing to them about. A blank subject line just looks weird in the inbox. Using a single word to fill in that space can also be confusing. I’ve had several different directors write to me for project information all using the subject line “Update.” That or “Question” are favourites of lazy subject liners. This creates a difficult-to-manage inbox full of different email chains using the same subject line. Which update? Which question?

Be clear. Take the few extra seconds to include a relevant subject line. “Update on the spring schedule.” “Question about next month’s budget.”

Sign off politely

When email was first popularized, it replaced regular mail. Paper mail was considered a formal form of communication that had numerous rules for proper use. Over time, many of those formalities have been dropped as email usage became more common and casual.

This has lead to confusion. Do you need to write “sincerely” at the end as you might have closed a letter? Other than for the most formal of business communications, sincerely is probably too much. Many people use something like “best regards” or either one of those two words “best” or just “regards” for business emails.

A study conducted last year by the email scheduling app, Boomerang, found that the most effective way to sign off an email. They analyzed 350,000 email chains to see which closings received the best response rates. The most common email sign-offs were:

  • Thanks
  • Regards
  • Cheers
  • Best regards
  • Thanks in advance
  • Thank you
  • Best
  • Kind regards

The sign-offs that included some variation of “thanks” got a response 62 per cent of the time, compared to a 46 per cent for the emails without the expression of gratitude. “Thanks in advance” got the highest response rate of all at 66 per cent followed by “thanks,” (63 per cent), and “thank you,” (58 per cent).

When you write to someone, even if you aren’t requesting any action from them, you are taking up the time it takes them to read your email. Show your appreciation.

Be careful using Reply-All and BCC

If you are copied on a large email chain and have a response or follow-up question for one person, it is okay to simply reply/respond to that one person. You don’t have to copy the whole list on every email. Send your query to the relevant person without filling up everyone else’s inbox. The unnecessary Reply-all is the scourge of the modern office.

Always be very aware of when you’re hitting Reply vs. Reply-all. One of the most common workplace communications blunders is the accidental Reply-all when you mean to send a snarky comment or sensitive message back to just one person and accidentally copy the whole group. Reputations have been wrecked, careers have been damaged.

If you want to narrow the conversation to fewer recipients, and you don’t want the earlier people copied to be left wondering what happened, you can BCC them on one more email. Move the unnecessary parties to the BCC line, and then mention that you are now “BCCing Bob and Sam on this email.” Bob and Sam will receive that one final communication, but they won’t be included on future emails in the chain.

That is a correct use for the BCC functionality. BCCing a large mailing list for an update or announcement when you don’t want to expose the addresses on your mailing list to each other is another good use.

Emailing someone a complaint, comment, or question and BCCing their manager to keep them secretly informed of your concerns is not a proper use of the functionality. That is just being passive aggressive. If you feel it necessary to include multiple levels of management on an email, then be up-front about it. Also, BCCing the boss often backfires. The surreptitiously copied party can hit Reply-all with a comment or follow-up question of their own – exposing your subterfuge and damaging workplace relationships and trust.

Email can seem casual because it has become a ubiquitous and immediate form of communication. However, it is also permanent. With every email you send, you are creating a written record of your language ability, business acumen, and communications style. Make the right impression.

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