- Bulleted lists
- Customer satisfaction survey
- Customer service
- Customer service e-mail
- English as a second language
- Government web writing
- Grammar and usage
- Help desk
- Hypertext links
- Plain language
- Press release
- Public relations
- Quality standards
- Social Customer Service
- Social media
- Style guides
- Subject line
- Visual display
- Web Writing
- Word cloud
- Writing resources
- Writing Skills
- Writing training
Posts within the category: E-mail
September 6, 2012
This guest post is by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre, principal of Full Circle Communications, a writing and editing firm based in Alexandria, VA.E
Effective E-Mails, from Subject Line to Signature
E-mails are so much a part of our daily communication that we often dash them off without much thought.
A little forethought can yield better results--whether you need to request action from the receiver, provide information, or ask a question.
For current thoughts about best practices for business e-mails, I talked with Leslie O'Flavahan, principal of E-WRITE. Among its services, the firm trains managers, call center staff, and many others in effective online writing. (See below for a small sampling of her blog posts, articles, and other writing on these topics.)
What is effective? As O'Flahavan defines it, "an effective e-mail accomplishes what the writer intended." From the top to the bottom of a typical e-mail, here are a few things she pointed out to me.
Start the subject line of the e-mail with a "cue" about what the recipient is expected to do. "A noun is usually the first word," O'Flavahan said. Examples:
Subject: Request for July sales figures by August 16
Subject: Question about conference lodging
Subject: Update about new leave policy
Subject: Please read
Subject: Great news!
"Don't withhold essential information to provoke the reader to open the e-mail, especially since so many people are reading e-mails on mobile devices," she recommended.
An additional consideration: The first 26 characters of the subject line are the most prominent. Some e-mail programs cut off the subject line at that point.
The opening of the e-mail sets the tone. This introductory section should not be long, but a sentence or two can establish rapport.
Hope you had a great holiday.
Thanks for letting me know your opinion about the new policy.
Whether you use the recipient's first name or honorific will depend on the situation. When in doubt, go more formal, rather than less.
The next part of the e-mail provides the meat of the communication.
Make the main point first, and then elaborate if you need to. "This buys you the opportunity to write longer for those who want to know more," O'Flahavan said. "But you have already made the essence clear."
If there are details or an attachment, cue the reader:
Details are below.
The attachment describes the policy in fuller detail.
People reading the e-mail on a mobile device can determine if they need to re-read it later or download the attachment.
Proofing is, of course, essential. But as O'Flahavan noted, "There is a hierarchy of errors." Ideally, everything is correct, but transposing the letters in the word "with" is far less serious than transposing the numbers in a key due date.
O'Flahavan is a big proponent of re-using bits of content, if appropriate, rather than re-writing the same information on multiple occasions. Copying and pasting well-proofed chunks of content saves time and minimizes the chance for errors if you have the same information to tell many people but still need to customize the e-mail for each recipient.
Call to Action
According to O'Flavahan, a quality subject line improves your chance of getting the response you intend. Beyond the writing, she also noted that your reputation affects your chance of a timely response, especially in an office situation. Do you respond efficiently? What goes around, comes around.
Now that you have dealt with business, the closing allows you to re-establish more personal rapport with the recipient. She suggests several options:
Looking forward to... (and then repeat the main point of the e-mail)
Thank you for...
Please contact me if you... (have questions, want to schedule a follow-up, etc.)
Sincerely, All the Best, Warm Regards... (while any of these phrases before your name has its place, she notes that the phrase should match the tone of the rest of the e-mail.)
Back in the '00s, we were told to pack our signature lines with marketing information (for example, the dates of the next conference or a pithy quote, in addition to contact information). But they become ponderous when you are exchanging e-mails back and forth with the same person, and they may be less effective as readers gloss over them in a hurry.
An easy work-around is to have different signature lines--a full one for new recipients down the barebones of your name and phone number for more frequent correspondents.
Don't go too short. A few months ago, a client told me she had to go through a whole series of e-mails before she found my phone number. (My signature line to her had been reduced to just my first name.) Good point. I now include at least my phone number in the signature line of business e-mails I send.
If you'd like to write a guest post for the Writing Matters blog, contact me at Leslie@ewriteonline.com.
July 20, 2012
Recently, I was doing a deep-clean on my inbox (also known as "taking a break" from a demanding writing project), and I came across some e-mail objets d'art I'd saved. I thought I'd share these three gems with you. The sender's names have been changed, of course.
E-Mail #1 - The Testy Collaborator
Here's my e-mail to "Bernard," a fellow who'd suggested we might work together on an upcoming project.
Subject: A more detailed overview the ABC Group?
Hello, Bernard –
It was great to speak with you yesterday. Could you provide a more detailed overview of your company? I have looked at your LinkedIn profile and studied your website, but I am still curious about:
- Where you worked before forming or joining the ABC Group
- When the ABC Group was formed
- Who works for you or with you
- Who your clients are (specifically)
Thanks for sharing a bit more biography!
And here's Bernard's response to me.
Re your questions. Not used to this kind of grilling. Perhaps timing is not right for us to work together.
Needless to say, that project never got off the ground.
E-Mail #2 - The Really Small Business
Here's the query e-mail I received from "DanceBeats."
Subject: I need a little sales letter!
My name is Edward and I got a little online business. I sell hip hop/dance/pop instrumentals for singers/songwriters and I need little email sales letter about my special discounts. How much does this cost? Do you have little prices for small businesses? To see more what I do you can go to my website www.DanceBeatsABC.com
Edward, Music Producer
I sent Edward a tiny response and quoted him a mini-price, but his answer was a big "no thanks."
E-Mail #3 - The Honors Student?
Here's the request I received from "Chief Jason Odinaka," who's trying a time-tested work-around instead of actually writing his own college papers.
Subject: My Dear Leslie ...
Dear Leslie O'Flahavan -
These are the two subject matter topics, how long will it take you to give me a good work on them and how much ?
- Question 1: The philosophy essay. Descartes contends that epistemology is really “first philosophy.” First, clearly explain what epistemology is. Second, do you think we can establish an indubitable foundation for all knowledge? Explain why or why not.
- Question 2: New information technology jobs, such as computer and video game programmers, are often viewed as the new “mother lode” of good jobs in contemporary society. Analyze the transformations occurring in these jobs and the extent to which these jobs can be labelled as “good jobs”. These are the instructions for the research paper essay
7-10 pages, typed, double spaced, using a 12 point font.
At least 10 references.
Must incorporate a minimum of 4 scholarly sources (articles from referred journals, books or chapters by academics.
You must provide page references for all ideas and information you obtained from a source (not just page references for direct quotes from a source.)
Frame a research question/hypothesis. That clearly and succinctly identifies the central question or issue.
Core of the paper is then the review of the recent relevant literature on your topic.
Chief Jason Odinaka
Let it be known that I did not write his Descartes essay or research paper. Times may be hard, but I am glad to say that here at E-WRITE's corporate headquarters, times aren't that hard. And I just don't think I am up to the task of explaining whether we can establish "... an indubitable foundation for all knowledge." I can tell you right now: if I tried to write Chief Jason's essay on Descartes, my inbox would be really, really clean.
Wishing you happy, surprising e-mails -
October 10, 2011
When this e-mail landed in my inbox, I just had to say "wow." It's not easy to send an e-mail to nearly everyone at work explaining that you're leaving because you've gotten a better job in a much warmer and hipper place. Jane Doe's "I've quit" e-mail sets just the right tone, offers just the right amount of information, and shows just the right regard for her replacement.
Read Jane's e-mail plus my comments on her deft use of language.
Subject: Moving on [Not "resigning," just "moving on."]
I have some news to share with you all. . . I am moving to Miami! [Gets to the point right away; keeps sentences short. Instead of saying "I got a better job," she says "I am moving to Miami."]
I just recently accepted an offer as the Director of Sales for ABC Corp. It is an amazing opportunity and ABC is an incredible company. I am very excited to embark on this new journey. ["Amazing," "incredible," and "excited." We'd be grumps not to be happy for her in return.]
It has been truly a pleasure getting working with all of you. While I am excited to leave Albany before the cold weather sets in, I will also miss working with all of you. My last day at StemCorp will be this Friday, October 14th. [She keeps things light by citing a reason to leave Albany that everyone can agree upon: it's cold!]
In the interim, my colleague Gisela Gordon will be your new contact. Gisela is incredibly talented and will no doubt transition seamlessly. Here's Gisela’s contact information: Gisela Gordon, 888-123-4567, Gisela.Gordon@StemCorp.com [Her confident language about Gisela's smooth takeover makes readers feel confident too.]
I wish you all the best of luck! If you would like to keep in touch, please connect with me via LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/janedoe [She ends on a positive note by offering her former colleagues an easy, business-appropriate way to stay in touch.]
I think Jane Doe tread lightly, kept it upbeat, and sent a broadcast e-mail that's better than most. She made a difficult-to-write e-mail look easy. What do you think? Would you have changed Jane Doe's e-mail in any way?
September 10, 2011
On September 11, 2001, I was teaching a Writing for the Web course for staff in the Arlington County, VA government. Among the class members were six fire department employees. Just after 9:30, when I was discussing the course objectives and reviewing the agenda, the fire department attendees' pagers went off. The six of them stood in unison and began heading out the door. Before he left, one man came up to me where I was standing at the podium and whispered "We have to go now and you'll know why soon." In minutes, we all knew why they had left and, of course, the class was canceled.
Looking back on that day of destruction, I have always been grateful that I had been doing something constructive: working with people who wanted to learn to communicate more clearly. And I was grateful that Arlington County rescheduled the writing class I was teaching on September 11, 2001. About 10 weeks later, we held the class, and some of the fire department employees attended. Our nation and local community were struggling with concerns about safety and overwhelming grief, and we 25 people in a writing class were learning how to make ourselves understood. To me, this was a hopeful thing to do.
So, in light of this connection between communication and the legacy of 9/11, I'd like to share the two 9/11-related e-mails I received today:
- One is from American University (AU), where my daughter goes to school. Read the complete AU e-mail here.
One is from the Montgomery County, Maryland government. (I live in Montgomery County.) Read the complete county government e-mail here.
American University's e-mail is 9/11 communication done right:
- The e-mail is signed by Neil Kerwin, AU president. Seeing the president's name on the e-mail assures me that I am reading well-vetted information.
- The subject line, "Security and AU Emergency Preparedness," is well-crafted. It uses problem-solving words – security, preparedness – instead of alarming words – threat, terrorism.
- It's loaded with personal pronouns – our students, we will notify, I encourage you. These pronouns support the connection between writer and readers; they build trust.
It provides practical suggestions about what to do – familiarize yourself with the AU Emergency Preparedness Web site and honor the day with AU events of remembrance. I am glad that one of the practical suggestions is a positive one.
Montgomery County, MD's e-mail is 9/11 communication done wrong:
- The subject line is "Alert Montgomery," which is the same subject line the county uses for all alert-related communications: tornado warnings, earthquakes, crime alerts, and water main breaks. So when I receive an "Alert Montgomery" e-mail, I have no idea whether I should go to the basement and cover myself with a mattress or watch the county's "7 Signs of Terrorism" video.
- It calls readers residents, not you. Now, you may think I am nitpicking here, but surely Alert Montgomery knows this e-mail will be read by county business owners, too? So using the word residents instead of you makes the e-mail inaccurate as well as impersonal.
- It describes the efforts of the bureaucracy instead of answering the questions of the residents. We learn that the county police have joined federal and local partners in the "See Something Say Something" campaign, which is a "simple and effective" program. These are bureaucrats' concerns, not ours.
- It uses terms most residents will find unfamiliar. Can you imagine a county resident placing this call? "Hello, Montgomery County Police. I would like to report one instance of Elicitation and one of Deploying Assets."
It does little to help me know what to do in light of potential attack. (Ugh, I am getting so tangled up in the county's wording! What is a potential attack, anyway?!) The e-mail is 444 words long. Thirty words before the end, the county encourages me to contact the police if I observe a suspicious situation.
How will I commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001? By thinking of the people I was with on that date and the reason we were together. By calling my friend and Arlington County colleague Anita, whom I've spoken to on every September 11th since 2001. By continuing to work to build understanding between writers and readers, speakers and listeners.
April 26, 2011
Ever wondered what it would be like to receive a brush-off e-mail from a corporation's animal mascot? Well, wonder no more. Here's the "no thanks" e-mail a friend's son received after he tried out to replace the inappropriate Gilbert Gottfried as the Aflac Duck.
From the desk of The Aflac Duck
I want to thank you for taking the time to audition to be my voice. My vocabulary is too limited to find the words to personally tell how much it means to our company to have you participate in this important job search. Most people never give their dreams a chance and I applaud you for giving this job audition such tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Everyone at Aflac is truly amazed and humbled by the outpouring of talented people who want to represent us. The voice search team listened to over 12,500 online and in person auditions and has ultimately narrowed the selection down to 10 finalists.
The Aflac Duck
For me, this e-mail doesn't work. The duck who wrote this e-mail sounds an awful lot like the corporate communications department trying way too hard to extend the brand. There's just no levity, no duck-iness, in lines like "Most people never give their dreams a chance ..." and "Be sure to stay in touch ..." I would have thought the Aflac Duck would have a less suit-and-tie writing voice, especially after watching the commercial in which he plunges his head into a jar of pickled jalapenos or rescues the damsel tied to the train tracks.
How would you feel if you were an actor or a voice artist who'd sent in an audition tape and hoped to land this job? Would you appreciate receiving this staid-sounding e-mail from "the desk of The Aflac Duck"? Let me know or post a comment here.
Get email updates
- Why a 280-Character Customer Service Tweet is a Bad Idea
- How to Use LinkedIn to Your Best Advantage
- In live chat, don’t argue with customers who are trying to pay
- Writing for the Web: Register for this course on March 15, 2013 in Silver Spring,MD
- Using Twitter for Customer Service? Answer the customer’s dang question
- 456 Berea St
- Bad Language
- Beth Kanter's Blog
- Business Writing
- Communication in a Web Saturated World
- Compete on Usability
- Debbie Weil
- Earley Blog
- Good Experience
- Grammar Girl :: Quick and Dirty Tips
- I'd Rather Be Writing
- In the Box
- Learn How to Write from the Best Blogs
- Manage Your Writing
- Plain Language Matters
- The Writer Underground
- Words to Good Effect
- Writing for the Web
- Wylie's Writing Tips
- Your English Success
- April 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- July 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008