12 Steps to Writing Effective Business Emails in English

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12 Steps to Writing Effective Business Emails in English

A student in Japan once brought her colleague's email to class. "Can you read it?" she said. "He didn't get a response."

My student's colleague had sent a Japanese midsummer greeting called shochū mimai to his foreign counterpart, inquiring about his well-being during the hottest time of the summer in Japan. However, without explaining the reason for emailing and without elaborating on unusual and inappropriate questions (How's your health?), the foreign counterpart likely misunderstood and, therefore, never responded.

The email also contained several other problems:

  • No keywords in the subject
  • Referred to the recipient as Mr. [First Name]
  • Poorly formatted message
  • Mixed pronouns (he, she, it)
  • Unclear if a response was expected
  • Numerous spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes

While a free tool like Grammerly could've resolved the spelling and grammatical errors, knowing how to write an effective business email most likely would've led to a response from the foreign counterpart. Don't make the same mistake.

In this post, I'm going to show you my 12 steps for writing effective business emails in English.

Step 1. Tone

Should the Email be Formal, Informal or Casual?

Consult your company's content style guide for the tone. If your company doesn't have a content style guide – decide if your email should be formal, informal or casual.

Your tone changes depending on who and why you're emailing. For example, you might use a formal tone to contact a foreign counterpart, an informal tone for internal communication and a casual tone for collaborating on a project. If you're unsure which tone to use, mirror the tone of the person who emailed you first or follow these suggestions:

Formal Emails (Dear Mr. Hanline,)

  • For first emails, infrequent emails and recipients in a higher position
  • Similar to a business letter
  • Often used for requests, complaints, problems, apologies, etc.

Informal Emails (Hi Henry,)

  • For colleagues, internal communication and recipients that you know
  • Professional, but friendlier and more relaxed
  • Often used for internal communication and infrequent emails that are less formal.

Casual Emails (Henry,)

  • For frequent email correspondence with recipients that you know
  • Conversational tone similar to a text message
  • Might include a salutation
  • Might be just a few sentences
  • Might include compliments or pleasantries
  • Brief closings and signatures

Step 2. Salutation

Greet the Recipient

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These days, informal salutations like "Hi [First Name]" are common for establishing a friendlier tone even when the email is formally written. Nevertheless, some companys still prefer the traditional, "Dear [Mr. Last Name]" or "Dear [First Name]."

Best Practices

  • No space before punctuation
  • One space after punctuation
  • Use correct honorific titles (Mr., Ms., Dr.) if appropriate
  • Use a colon when you don't know the recipient's name

Formal Phrases

  • Dear Mr. [Last Name],
  • Dear Ms. [Last Name],
  • Dear [First Name],
  • Dear All,
  • Dear Sir or Madam:

Informal Phrases

  • Hello [First Name],
  • Hi [First Name],
  • Hi Everyone,
  • Team,
  • Good Morning [First Name],

Casual Phrases

  • Hi,
  • Hey [First Name],
  • [First Name],
  • No Salutation

When finished, hit the Enter/Return key twice for a line break.

Step 3. Introduction

Introduce Yourself and/or Begin With a Compliment or Pleasantry

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If the recipient doesn't know you or may have forgotten your name, introduce yourself. However, if the recipient already knows you, begin with a compliment or pleasantry. Don't just write, "How are you?" Write 1-2 short sentences such as, "We haven't spoken in a while. I hope you're well."

Best Practices

  • Don't indent
  • 2-3 short sentences
  • Be ultra-specific
  • Use contractions (I'm, isn't, aren't, don't, etc.) for informal and casual emails

Phrases: Introductions

  • My name's Tomohiro Sato. I'm contacting you about...
  • My name's Akira Yamamoto from the HR Department at Bento Sites, KK. Thank you for the inquiry.
  • This is... from Customer Support. 
  • We met at the World Business Forum. My name's...

Phrases: Compliments and Pleasantries

  • I really enjoyed your presentation last Friday. Well done!
  • Thanks for sending directions from LAX. That's really helpful.
  • We appreciate your patience and apologize for the inconvenience.
  • Welcome back! I hope you had a great vacation.
  • Thank you for the prompt response.

When finished, hit the Enter/Return key twice for a line break.

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Step 4. Reason

What Should the Recipient do or Know?

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What's the reason for the email? Are you providing new information, clarifying past information or following up? If you're not sure why you're emailing, you're recipient won't know either.

Best Practices

  • 1 paragraph
  • 1-5 short sentences
  • Aim for brevity
  • Be polite, positive and ultra-specific
  • Ensure pronouns are understood

Phrases

  • The reason I'm emailing is...
  • I'm writing about...
  • I'm writing to confirm...
  • I have 3 questions about...:
  • I'm following up with you regarding...
  • I just wanted to follow up...
  • I just wanted to remind you that...
  • Monday at 10am PST is convenient for me.
  • Could you send me the Anika Stone's email address?

When finished, hit the Enter/Return key twice for a line break.

Step 5. Deatils

What Else Should the Recipient do or Know?

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Most businessmen and businesswomen receive almost 100 emails per day. To make your message more enjoyable to read and to elicit a faster response, use headers with lists and transitions from paragraph-to-paragraph. Bold critical details, too. Keep the message focused. Less is more, more can be tiring.

Best Practices

  • 5 (maximum) short sentences per paragraph
  • 5 (maximum) paragraphs per email
  • 1 idea per paragraph
  • Write essential information in the first paragraph
  • Write in active voice (Tomohiro wrote the email.)
  • Don't write in passive voice (The email was written by Tomohiro.)
  • Use transitions from paragraph to paragraph
  • Use headers to make the message more reader-friendly and scannable
  • Bold headers or critical details
  • Use lists (numbers or bullets) to keep the message simple and scannable
  • Avoid slang and excessive jargon
  • Avoid language that could be interpreted as defamatory, sexist or racist.
  • Avoid emoji, emoticons and chatspeak (OMG, LOL, etc.)
  • Avoid flashy fonts and unnecessary colors
  • Use the Enter/Return key at the end of paragraphs, not the end of every sentence
  • Attachments: Write clear, concise document titles with capital letters before attaching documents, images, etc.
  • Attachments: Introduce attachments by stating how many and their titles
  • Attachments: Use lists when including more than one attachment

Phrases: Attachment

  • Please find attached...
  • I have attached...
  • I have included two attachments for your trip to Los Angeles:
    1. Directions from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
    2. Day 1 Agenda

When finished, hit the Enter/Return key twice for a line break.

Step 6. Closing

Indicate if a Response is/isn’t Expected

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To clearly indicate that a response is expected, tell your recipient. A polite and common technique is to simply write, "I look forward to..."

If a response is not expected, thank the recipient for his/her time, suggest where to find additional information or provide a compliment or pleasantry.

Best Practices

  • 1-2 sentences

Formal Phrases: Response Expected

  • I look forward to hearing from you.
  • I look forward to your response.
  • I look forward to your feedback.
  • Let me your opinion on this issue.

Formal Phrases: Response Not Expected

  • Thank you very much.
  • Thanks for your assistance.
  • Please let me know if you have any questions.
  • Let me know if you need anything else. I'm glad to help.

Informal Phrases: Response Expected

    • Let me know if that helps.
    • I hope to hear from you soon.
    • Could you let me know by 5:00pm today?
    • Looking forward to hearing your opinion.

    Informal Phrases: Response Not Expected

    • Thanks for your help.
    • I hope that helps.
    • Have a nice day.
    • Have a good one.

    Casual Phrases: Response Expected

    • Any suggestions?
    • What do you think?
    • Speak to you soon.

    Casual Phrases: Response Not Expected

    • Cheers,
    • Thanks!
    • Good luck.

    When finished, hit the Enter/Return key twice for a line break.

    Step 7. Sign-Off

    Say Goodbye

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    Choose a closing that matches your tone. If you're writing a formal email, you might sign-off with "Best regards." If you're writing an informal email, you might sign-off with "Regards." However, if you're writing a casual email, "Cheers!" or "Thanks" from Step 6 might already be enough. In that case, you don't need to add anything else.

     

    Formal Phrases

    • Sincerely,
    • Cordially,
    • Respectfully,
    • Best regards,
    • Warm regards,
    • All the best,

    Informal Phrases

    • Regards,
    • Thanks,
    • Best,
    • Take care,
    • See you soon,

    Casual Phrases

    • Cheers,
    • Thanks!
    • Thanks again!
     

    When finished, hit the Enter/Return key once for a line break. Some people prefer two line breaks between the closing your signature. Both are commonly accepted.

    Step 8. Signature

    Write Your Name and Contact Information

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    Just as the tone of your emails will change depending on who and why you're emailing, the email signature should also change depending whether your contacting someone for the first time, if the email is formal, informal or casual.

    Best Practices

    • Have at least 4 signatures - first contact, formal, informal and casual
    • Indicate your last name in capital letters (SATO) since some cultures list last names in different order.
    • Indicate your gender (Mr.) or (Ms.) if the recipient might be unfamiliar with your name. Even in English, Chris (short for Christopher - male) and Chris (short for Christina - female) can be confusing.
    • If you communicate with a recipient frequently, you may want to create a shorthand signature that also conveys how you'd like the recipient to address you. For example, Tomohiro Sato may sign his first name (Tomohiro) or just his short name (Tomo).

    First Contact Signature

    • First Name LAST NAME (Mr. or Ms.)
    • Position or Department
    • Company Name
    • Contact Numbers (include country code)
    • Website

    Formal Signature

    • First Name LAST NAME
    • Position or Department
    • Company Name
    • Contact Numbers (include country code, if necessary)
    • Website

    Informal Signature

    • First Name Last Name
    • Company Name
    • Contact Numbers (include country code, if necessary)

    Casual Signature

    • First Name or Short Name
    • Company Name

    Step 9. Subject

    Write the Topic of the Email

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    Now that you've written the email, summarize the message with a few keywords to convey the urgency of the email like a newspaper headline.

    Best Practices

    • 3- 5 keywords from the message
    • Capitalize words, but don't write in all CAPS
    • Replace articles (a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, at) and conjunctions (and, but) with dashes (–) or slashes (/)
    • Turn subjects into questions by adding a question mark (?)

    Subject Examples

    • Download - Bento Sites' Style Guide
    • Out of Office / October 3–5
    • Canceled - Thursday HR Meeting
    • Friday Lunch – 1:00pm?

    Step 10. Proofread

    Ensure the Email is Clear, Concise and Error-Free

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    Did you spell the recipient's name and company correctly? Are there any other spelling or grammatical mistakes? Is there any text that you could revise or delete? Is the message clear, complete and concise?

    Use a free tool like Grammarly for help with spelling and grammar. Not only is this app more powerful than you standard spell checker, but it'll help you improve English with specific suggestions that you can learn and correct yourself.

    Step 11. Email Address

    Enter the Recipient's Email Address

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    Have you ever received a curious email that was followed by another email from the same person? "Sorry, that email was intended for someone else."

    How embarrassing. I don't want to be that person and you shouldn't either. By adding the email address at the end of the message, you'll reduce the chances of making that mistake and appearing careless.

    Step 12. Send

    Send the Email

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    That's it! You're done!

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      Wrap Up

      You just learned my 12 steps for writing effective business emails in English. Share these steps with your colleagues. Download my free PDF and start writing and sending professional business emails today!

      Which of these steps are most helpful for you? Would you add anything else?

      The post 12 Steps to Writing Effective Business Emails in English first appeared on the Culture Gaps Blog by Jeff Shibasaki.