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How to Effectively Refine Your Email Abilities

Refining email abilities

"We spend 4.1 hours checking our work email each day" (source: Washington Post).

Since we spend so much of our time communicating via email, it is a daily opportunity to demonstrate your stellar written communication skills as well as your mastery of general email etiquette. Just like any other skill, practice is involved.

Here are some top tips to help you to refine your email abilities:

Beware of typos

I have to start out by stating the obvious since it is so important. Using incorrect spelling and grammar can cause confusion or instantly distract the reader from the message you are trying to communicate. Some email programs automatically check for this, however some require a manual check, such as Gmail. Change your settings to have these recommendations turned on or take an extra second to manually run a quick check.

Here's a link to a great grammar cheat sheet put together by Business Management Daily that I recommend if this is not one of your strengths: Grammar Cheat Sheet. Here are a couple top tips from that cheat sheet that I keep handy:

  • Then / than. “Then” describes a sequence of events: I went to work and then I went to the game. “Than” is a matter of comparison: I’d rather eat chocolate than eat Twizzlers.

  • i.e. / e.g. These Latin abbreviations are often misused: “i.e.” stands for “id est” (that is), “e.g.” stands for “exempli gratia” (for example).

One plug-in that is a stellar proofreading tool is Grammarly. A lot of great features are available in the free version. It works on any email program and provides suggestions as you type so you don't need to remember to run it before clicking send.

Leave no room for interpretation

Although doing your best to ensure there are no typos can help to avoid miscommunication, it is also important to ensure the point of your email is as clear as possible.

  • Are you asking a question? Then be sure to phrase your ask as such and use a question mark.

  • Be as specific as possible. Use specific timeframes instead of a vague "soon." Instead of saying "sure," be specific on exactly what you are agreeing to. If your email includes the names of several people, use specific names throughout instead of "he" or "she" to avoid the reader misinterpreting the wrong person being referred to. Clarify vague expectations, such as "make it better," by listing out all the details a task requires.

  • Avoid unnecessary fluff. Remove filler words and ramblings that are unnecessary to keep the purpose of your message as clear as possible. Being concise is key here.

Keep the format professional

If you would like the email to come across professional, here are a few formatting tips:

  • Avoid using slang and abbreviations, such as "IMHO." It's an email, not a chat room. In addition, opting for something like "u" instead of fully typing out the word "you" can make you appear lazy.

  • Use exclamation points sparingly; they can pack a lot of energy. Using too many can make you appear way too excited or run the risk of overwhelming the reader.

  • Do not use crazy font colors throughout, colorful backgrounds or random pics. They can be harsh on the eye and make you appear immature.

  • Be careful with your use of emojis. Sometimes an occasional smiley face is okay, but think about if it's appropriate for your audience and if they are being overused.

  • Avoid using all caps. It feels harsh and gives the impression of being shouted at.

  • Use letters when writing words, not other symbols. Some examples I've seen are "$tart," "r!de" or "h8." This tops the unprofessional list, in my opinion.

Use specific subject lines

Don't use vague subject lines, such as "Hi" or "Question;" use specifics so the reader has insight into what the email is about. Besides providing a sneak peek into the content, you also increase your chances of your email being opened.

Making a subject line precise is also great for being able to look up and quickly access archived emails. If you use keywords in the subject line then you lessen the time you or your recipient will exert in the future trying to locate past emails.

Use a strategic sign-off

According to a study by Boomerang, specific email closings result in different response rates. If you want to increase your chances of receiving a reply, here are the response rates for the top sign-offs:

  • "Thanks in advance" - 65.7%

  • "Thanks" - 63.0%

  • "Thank you" - 57.9%

  • "Cheers" - 54.4%

  • "Kind regards" - 53.9%

  • "Regards" - 53.5%

  • "Best regards" - 52.9%

  • "Best" - 51.2%

Have an email signature

It's helpful for the recipient if your email signature is listed in all of your emails (new emails as well as replies). It can be a time waster for the recipient if they need to call you or look up your company's website and they can't find a previous email that lists that basic information. Your professional email signature should contain your title, company name and basic contact information, such as your phone number, email address and website, as well as links to social media that you are trying to promote, such as your company's Twitter handle.

In addition, each time you type out your name you are wasting time. A few seconds here and there add up over long periods of time. Let this be automated and reclaim what could be a lost chunk of time.

Utilize Bcc

Using blind carbon copy is a great function that is often underutilized. Basically, when you add someone to Bcc they are in the loop on the initial email but will not be included on subsequent ones; if someone hits reply or reply all, they get dropped off. It's a great resource to use when the person you support has been Cc-ed on an email chain, such as a scheduling request, and you know all the back and forth will just be clogging up their inbox. If you would like to see an example of how Bcc can be used, check out this one here.

Don't overuse Cc

Have you ever received an email that you were Cc-ed on and wondered, "Was it really necessary to add me on this?" When you add someone to the Cc section of an email, remember that they will be spending time reading the email. Also, and perhaps more importantly, if any of the recipients hit the reply all button later on, they will be on every single ensuing email. Thus, a simple action can end up wasting someone's time or completely clog up their inbox, making it harder for them to get to the emails that are actually important.

Reply all should not be a reflex

Since our inboxes are so full, only use the reply all button when it is absolutely necessary. I can't tell you how many emails I have received that should have been sent directly to just one person. This is a button that is overused like crazy. To avoid the use of this on a group email that you are the composer of, you could directly ask the recipients to not do so (ex: "Please do not reply all; please send all responses directly to me.").

Forward only what is necessary

As assistants, we typically are privy to a lot of confidential information. Before forwarding an email, do a quick once over to see if there are any parts that the recipient shouldn't have access to. Once the forward button has been clicked, it's easy to scroll down and delete. In some email programs, such as Outlook, when you select a specific portion of an email and then click the forward button, only that section will remain.

Type in the recipient last

One best practice I learned the hard way is to wait to type the recipient's email address in the "To" field until the email is ready to be sent. It's not fun accidentally clicking the send button when you are only halfway through the composition or when you know there are errors you were still in the process of correcting. This is an especially crucial maneuver when it comes to sending company-wide emails.

Be careful with your tone of voice

Remember that tone of voice can be totally lost in emails since we are missing important visual and auditory clues. The feeling behind a word or phrase can be easily misinterpreted so be careful when using sarcasm or humor.

It also helps the general tone when you do your best to be positive. Use friendly terminology, give sincere compliments and use manners. Believe me, adding in a simple "please" can sometimes make all the difference.

Also, try to use positive phrasing of negative news. Everything can be said in a more positive manner, so play around with wording until it feels right. Even neutral updates can be portrayed in a negative or positive manner, so do a double check for words that can be deleted or swapped out. Here's an example to show you a few words that were removed to change the undertone of the sentence:

  • Negative: "Unfortunately, the information you are looking for will not be ready until Friday."

  • Positive: "The information you are looking for will be ready on Friday."

On the flip side, sometimes positive words need to be inserted so you do not come across harsh. Check out this example:

  • Negative: "Call me at 4 pm on Tuesday."

  • Positive: "Could you please call me at 4 pm on Tuesday?"

Another tip for adding positivity to a negative update is to use the sandwich method. Start the email with something positive, deliver the negative news and close by saying something positive again. The positive sections make it easier to digest the negative portion. Check out this article by Advanced Etiquette if you'd like a deeper dive into using this technique.

When doing research for this article, I came across a useful resource called ToneCheck that can review the tone of voice in an email draft. The software automatically points out sentences with a negative tone of voice, so you can make changes before the email is sent. Right now it's available to use with Gmail, Outlook and Lotus Notes, but they are working on integrating into other email platforms.

Should you put that in writing?

"Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition" (source: Twitter). It's important to point out the obvious- you are not in a private bubble. Have you or someone else you know accidentally hit a reply all or forwarded an email to the wrong person? Emails are meant to be easily forwarded to others, so don't put anything in writing that you wouldn't want your employer, mother or even the whole world to read. Instead, err on the side of leaving negative comments out. Although I am not a fan of gossip or trash talk, pick up the phone or have an in-person conversation if there's a time when you absolutely have to vent.

One quick strategy to use if you find yourself composing a heated email is to use the six-second pause. Taking six seconds to step back from what you are doing is all that is needed to interrupt the part of your brain that leads to irrational and potentially destructive reactions (source: FosterEssence). Once you come back to the email, you might rethink hitting the send button.

Don't assume email is instantaneous

Have you ever received an email updating you that the person you are meeting with is running late? The assumption that someone is watching their inbox waiting to receive an email is more than likely not true. If there's a cancellation, change or update that needs to be received by the recipient immediately, consider using another form of communication such as a text, phone call or in-person update.

Also, if you are about to send an email with a request for something needed by the end of the day, consider using another form of communication. If there's a link, attachment or something else that has to be sent via email, go ahead and send it that way but cover your bases and reach out to the recipient another way to ensure they are aware that the time sensitive item has hit their inbox.

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