Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nine ways to improve email messages

My graduate engineering students at The University of Tokyo often ask me for tips on how to write email messages to overseas colleagues.

Here is a summary of my best tips, compiled from various public sources (scroll down for links and resources).


1. Confirm your reason for writing


Before you write anything, ask yourself
  • Why am I writing this email?
  • What result do I expect? 


If you can’t succinctly state these answers, you might want to hold off on sending your message until you can. People get dozens, hundreds, even thousands of emails each day, so it’s only natural for them to gravitate toward the messages that are well thought-out and that clearly respect their time and attention. Careless emails do not invite careful responses.


Think through your email from the recipient’s point of view, and make sure you’ve done everything you can to try and help yourself before contacting someone else. If it’s a valuable message, treat it that way, and put in the time to making your words count.




2. Write a precise subject line


Use a detailed subject line. Business executives often complain that email with subject lines that are vague or empty land in their junk mail folder. Avoid getting ignored by including a straightforward but thorough subject.



You can make it even easier for your recipient to immediately understand why you’ve sent them an email and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. Compose a great “Subject:” line that hits the high points or summarizes the thrust of the message. Avoid “Hi,” “One more thing…,” or “FYI,” in favor of typing a short summary of the most important points in the message:



  • Lunch rescheduled to Friday @ 1pm
  • Reminder: Monday is "St. Bono’s Day"–no classes
  • REQ: Resend Larry Tate zip file?
  • HELP: Can you set up my printer?


In fact, if you’re relating just a single fact or asking one question in your email, consider using just the subject line to relate your message. In some organizations, such emails are identified by adding (EOM)—for end of message—at the end of the Subject line. This lets recipients see that the whole message is right there in the subject without clicking to the view the (non-existent) body. This is highly appreciated by people who receive a large volume of mail, since it lets them do a quick triage on your message without needing to conduct a full examination.



Sadly, good email subjects have become something of a lost art. It’s a pity, because you’re far more likely to get a favorable response from a busy person when they can quickly understand your message.




3. Use a proper salutation


Q: While addressing the recipient, is it better to use Sir/Madam instead of Mr./Ms./Dr. followed by the name of the recipient?



Q: How should I write the title (Mr., Ms.) of recipients if I do not know his or her sex? Many non-English names are difficult to distinguish their gender just by their names.




Q: How can I write to a foreign company without knowing who is in charge of a certain section? In the Kaplan chapter 3, there is a part saying we should follow their customs of reading while writing for international audiences. But in general, which style should we follow when we are not sure whether the person we are writing to is a foreigner?






A: Say hello. Business email has become so informal that some people do not even begin with a salutation. Avoid this habit. Properly address the person you are writing and use a colon, rather than a comma. For example, "Dear Mr. Smith:" is a correct business opening. You can switch to a comma once back-and-forth correspondence is established.




A: Here are some useful phrases
  • Dear Sir or Madam: (use if you don't know who you are writing to)
  • Dear Personnel Director: (use if you only know someone's title but not his or her name)
  • Dear Dr, Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms Smith: (use if you know who you are writing to, and have a formal relationship with - VERY IMPORTANT use Ms for women unless asked to use Mrs or Miss)
  • Dear Frank: (use if the person is a close business contact or friend)





Q: What is the proper way to introduce myself to you in this email for making questions concerning the contents of the class last week?


A: I am listing various ways students contacted me in order of preference (best first; try to avoid the last two)


  • Dear Professor Ricci:
  • Dear Mr. Ricci:
  • Dear Mr. Vince Ricci:
  • Dear Ricci sensei:
  • Dear Mr. Vince:
  • Dear Sir:






4. Provide context - your reason for writing 




Q: How should I reference past communication?
A: Here are some useful phrases
  • With reference to your advertisement in the Times...
  • With reference to your letter of 23rd March...
  • With reference to your phone call today...
  • Thank you for your letter of March 5th.


Q: How should I state the purpose of my contact?


A: Here are some useful phrases
  • I am writing to inquire about
  • I am writing to apologize for
  • I am writing to confirm








5. Get what you need



There are three basic types of business email.

  1. Providing information - “Larry Tate will be in the office Monday at 10.”
  2. Requesting information - “Where did you put the ‘Larry Tate’ file?”
  3. Requesting action - “Will you call Larry Tate’s admin to confirm our meeting on Monday?”




It should be clear to your recipient which type of email yours is; don’t bury the lede. Get the details and context packed into that first sentence or two whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to write an actual “topic sentence” that clarifies a) what this is about, and b) what response or action you require of the recipient.





Since the Larry Tate meeting on Monday has been moved from the Whale Room, could you please make sure the Fishbowl has been reserved and that the caterer has been notified of the location change? Please IM me today by 5pm Pacific Time to verify.





Assume that no one will ever read more than the first sentence of anything you write. Making that first sentence strong and clear is easily the best way to interest your recipient in the second sentence and beyond.



If your message includes any kind of request—whether for a meeting, a progress update, or what have you—put that request near the top of the message and clearly state when you will need it. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that your overwhelmed recipient will take the time to sift through your purple prose for clues about what they’re supposed to be doing for you.



Depending on the style of your team and the volume of mail they create, you might even consider adding functional text headers to the top of the body outlining the exact nature of the message.




This email is:

[ ] actionable

[ ] fyi

[ ] social





Response needed:

[ ] yes

[ ] up to you

[ ] no





Time-sensitive:

[ ] immediate

[ ] soon

[ ] none







Remove the guesswork from your messages by thinking of them like friendly work orders; you must not be afraid to ask for what you want, especially if you have any desire to actually have the recipient give it to you.



Q: How do I ask for what I need in a polite way?
A: Here are some useful phrases


  • Could you possibly...?

  • I would be grateful if you could...





6. Manage expecatations



Q: How should I manage expectations of readers to understand that something bad has happened?


A: Here are some useful phrases


  • Unfortunately, 

  • I am afraid that...






7. Attach documents





Q: How do I reference attachments?


A: Most people prefer that documents be sent as attachments, rather than copied and pasted into the body of the email.

  • I am attaching...
  • Please find attached...
  • Attached you will find...






8. Close appropriately





Q: How do I close my letter in a direct but polite way?


A:  Here are some useful phrases
  • Thank you for your help. Please contact me if there are any problems.
  • Thank you for your help. Please let me know if you have any questions.






9. Sign-off politely


Q: How should I end my email?


A: Good sign-offs for academic and business correspondence

  • Sincerely,
  • Sincerely yours, (not: "Sincerely Yours," - as in a sentence, you only capitalize the first word)
  • Best regards, (not: "Best Regards," - as in a sentence, you only capitalize the first word)
  • Best,
  • Thanks,



A: These sign-offs are too informal for academic and business correspondence (OK with friends, family) 

  • Cheers,
  • Love,
  • Hugs,
  • Later,


A: These sign-offs are polite, but best used in written letters, not email messages 

  • Cordially,
  • Yours truly,
  • Yours,





Compiled from various online sources including


- Updated by Vince on Fri 12 Aug 2016
  • I have been a full-time international graduate admissions consultant since 2002
  • Based in Tokyo, Japan, I help clients around the world
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