Writing for Business

by Steve Roche

Writing emails

Within a short time email has become a prime medium for business communication, replacing much of what used to happen on paper, over the phone or in person. It has also hugely increased the total amount of communication we have to deal with and brought with it a new set of problems.

Some people believe an email should be like a letter, properly laid out and conforming to standard rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Others think that normal writing conventions are irrelevant to a modern, fast-moving and informal medium.

Regardless of personal preferences, it is important to write with the reader in mind. Writing an email to approach somebody about possible work, for example, is a different prospect from writing an email to arrange a social evening.

Making emails count

Ambiguity is a constant danger of email, perhaps more so than other forms of writing, as it often takes the place of a conversation. In the absence of body language or tone of voice, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who is being gently ironic and someone who is quietly angry; between someone who is mildly puzzled and someone who hasn’t understood a word.

So in order to get the response you want, make sure your meaning is clear. Use unambiguous language and perhaps also repeat your main message in a different way.

Emoticons are symbols that use a smile :-), a wink ;) or a frown :-(, (among many others), developed to help make the attitude of the writer more explicit.

Commonly accepted abbreviations include IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), LOL (Laughs Out Loud or Lots Of Love – beware the ambiguity!). Like jargon, these can be used as a helpful subset of the language, as long as their use assists effective communication.

They are also part of the etiquette of emailing. Email groups (teams, companies, user groups, lists, bulletin boards) develop their own rules and procedures. These may govern personal or ‘off-topic’ messages, replies to individuals or groups, and rules on ‘flaming’ (personal attacks on other users).

Many business users have trouble dealing with the sheer volume of email they receive. It is easy to ignore emails, allow them to stack up, or simply delete them without reading.

If your communication is important, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is email the best medium?
  • Can you guarantee that it will be read?
  • Is there a better way to get your message across?

Guidelines for business email

It’s important to make it as easy as possible for the recipient of your email to understand it quickly and respond appropriately.

  • Give it a meaningful and informative header – one that improves the likelihood of your mail getting attention.
  • Avoid words in headers that might get picked up by spam filters (such as ‘free’).
  • Have your spell checker switched on, and educate it to accept words you use frequently.
  • Use the set priority feature to mark High or Low priority messages.
  • Include all essential information, such as your phone number and name.

Your name is important, especially if it does not appear in your email address. If it doesn’t, is your address appropriate? A jokey name or hotmail address gives a distinct message and may result in your mail being ignored.

Make your email user-friendly:

  • Choose a font size that is easily readable on the screen.
  • Use HTML (rich text) for impact and clarity (although if you use too much formatting, spam filters may block the mail as potential advertising)
  • Avoid unusual font styles – unless you deliberately want to give the impression of being wacky, creative, or fun.
  • Avoid fancy backgrounds (pictures, colours or sound) and stationery styles (such as ivy-leaved borders). They rarely enhance communication, and may increase download time and the irritability factor.
  • Avoid the use of capitals, which is widely regarded as the EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.
Tip

To really annoy people, combine CAPITALS and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!

Most of the principles in Writing for the computer screen also apply to writing emails.

Confidentiality and forwarding

Email is a valuable communication tool, but sometimes a click of the send button can spell disaster. Common mistakes include:

  • clicking reply all and sending personal comments to everyone, instead of just the sender,
  • clicking reply when you meant to forward an email grumbling about the sender,
  • clicking on send before you have attached the required document.

Beware of including sensitive information or personal opinion in emails because they are so easily copied and forwarded. Note that copying other people’s messages may breach their confidentiality.

Some mistakes and errors of judgement made by unwary emailers have become well known, such as...

Oops!

...the schoolgirl who was astonished to find among her emails an urgent message from the Pentagon containing confidential information not intended for civilian eyes. Although she pointed out the error, the emails kept coming from the Pentagon, the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere, with details about warships and defence strategy. It turned out a Royal Navy officer had inadvertently included her on a mailing list because of a typing error.

The advantage of email – its speed and immediacy – is also its drawback. Sometimes the writer should have taken a few minutes to really think about the content. The ‘today is a good day to bury bad news’ email of 11 September 2001 is a classic example.

It is easy to think that once you hit send, the email is gone. But many copies exist – on your computer’s hard drive, on your server, on the back-up tapes, on the recipient’s computer, on their server and so on. And we have no control over who sees our emails or what the recipient does with a message, like...

Oops!

...the woman who playfully commented on a sperm bank joke, little thinking her intimate exchange with her boyfriend would become a matter of global gossip. He forwarded her email to six friends, and so on and so on until millions had seen it.

Every communication with the outside world represents you, your organisation and your brand. Use appropriate language and think of the impact on the recipient, especially if they are external to your organisation.

It is unwise to be as informal and chatty in email as on the phone. Messages may hang around and may get forwarded, perhaps to newsgroups or bulletin boards, and be seen by the ‘wrong’ person. It is not unknown for people to be sacked for injudicious comments made about their employers after an email has got into the public domain.

Ten tips for business email

  1. Keep it short and concise: people have low tolerance for reading from the screen.
  2. Make sure your meaning is clear and unambiguous.
  3. Ensure your tone or attitude is clear; if necessary, clarify by being more explicit.
  4. Think about it from the recipient’s viewpoint.
  5. Avoid rude words and anything likely to trigger a spam filter.
  6. Remember that the message may be seen by people other than the recipient.
  7. Only copy to others if essential; use the blind copy facility (bcc) if appropriate.
  8. Check the accuracy of all information, especially dates, names and contact details.
  9. Include a useful signature with your contact details.
  10. Do not forward widely-circulated material, such as virus warnings, jokes and petitions.

Make use of an email signature to:

  • establish brand identity,
  • deliver a marketing message,
  • give a flavour of personal style,
  • provide useful contact information and
  • include warnings and disclaimers.

Before sending email

  • Check the address of the recipient.
  • Be certain you have the right recipient(s) if using ‘reply’ or ‘reply all’.
  • Remove long circulation lists.
  • Check for accuracy and completeness.
  • Double-check your intention before you hit ‘send’.
  • Check that any attachments are indeed attached.

Perhaps set up your mailer so there is a delay between ‘send’ and the message actually leaving the mailbox. This can allow useful ‘cooling off’ time.

Thousands of messages are sent every day apologising for the mistake in the previous one. Receiving an email correcting or adding to the information in the previous one creates irritation and confusion, wastes everybody’s time and makes the sender look sloppy and unprofessional.