Published March 03, 2017
Email swept into the office in the mid-1990s, and with this new form of business communication came a whole bunch of questions for etiquette expert Lynne Breil. Owner of The Professional Edge (www.theprofessionaledgeinc.com), Breil has a lot of good advice about how to be both polite and productive as you use this primary business communication tool. Follow her recommendations and chances are your email messages will be not only more mannerly but also more effective.
Get off to a strong start with your subject line.
Avoid vague subject lines like “A quick question,” “Follow up” or others that provide little-to-no concrete information. Instead, Breil said, make subject lines “concise, enticing and relevant (CER).” Include a deadline, a description of an event or your name; for example, “Proposal for staff retreat from Lynne Breil” or “Need your input on 2017 conference by 5 p.m. tomorrow.”
“Email has to fight for the right to be opened,” Breil said. “Make sure your subject line will catch attention.” But don’t go too far with alarmist words like “urgent” or strings of exclamation points.
When the discussion in an email thread takes a new direction, change the subject line to fit the new topic, which makes it easier to track down the conversation later and alerts recipients that the subject has changed.
Say ‘so long’ to lengthy messages.
Email was designed to quickly relay information; it easily outruns a business letter and typically takes less time than a phone call. Yet, over time, emails have gotten too long and detailed. Shorter emails, said Breil, are much more likely to be read and absorbed, and are much more mobile friendly. “Keep your emails to five to six sentences,” Breil said. “About 150 words would be my recommendation.” If your email is longer than a half-dozen sentences, edit it. “Think, how can I boil this down,” she said. Using active rather than passive voice can help. For example, instead of writing “If you have any questions, call me,” take the more direct route and write “Call me if you have questions.” And keep this tidbit from Breil in mind as you compose your message: In a survey, more than 80 percent of 1,000 people said they wouldn’t read an email that is more than four paragraphs long.
BLUF for better reading and results.
Most of us put the meat of our email at the end of our message when we should be telling people from the start why we are writing. As you compose an email, think Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF), Breil said. “People want to know the relevancy right up front. Get to the point.” So, for example, when I contacted Breil about an interview for this column, I introduced myself and told her about myself and about Small Market Meetings. Then I asked about an interview. I should have begun by saying, “I have read about you and would like to interview you for a story about email etiquette.” Then I could follow with a short explanation of who I am and the publication I’m writing for.
Who to include — and who to omit.
We’ve all been in one of those “reply to all” email strings that go on and on and, after a while, aren’t relevant to everyone on the list. “I’ve been talking about this for 15 years,” Breil said. “If you have a list, take a minute and delete those who don’t need to know that you can’t make it to the reception because you are picking up your child at soccer practice.” On the flip side, anyone who is mentioned in your email message probably should be copied on the email, Breil said.
I’ll have more advice on email protocol from Lynne Breil in next month’s column. In the meantime, to reach her, visit www.theprofessionaledgeinc.com, or call 717-755-3333.