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5 Rules for More Professional Emails


Keep Your Written Communications Professional

You’ve probably heard this: “How you write is just as important as what you write.” These days, someone’s “personal brand” is everything - both online and in the professional world.” Keeping your emails professional will go a long way to supporting your personal brand.

In many ways, email and instant messenger programs allow for the visual equivalent of eavesdropping on a phone conversation. There are blogs giving advice on how to write an email "like it will be one day be read in a court deposition.” These blogs have a lot of advice about what not to do, but very little about what a person should do or why it’s important.

Here are my top five “what not to do” rules, and suggestions for what to do instead:

Rule 1: Be Aware of Your Reactions (aka "No Venting")

This may be the hardest one to follow. Here is the most common situation I have observed:

You hear something in a virtual meeting, and your reaction is to immediately send an instant message, emoji (if your IM has that capability), or email to someone who is also in the meeting.

What’s the risk?

If the person you are sending the comment is sharing their screen with the larger audience but that person forgot to turn-off their email notifications and/or keep the IM screen closed… your comments are now public.

Don’t think for a minute that no one noticed – believe me, EVERYONE SAW IT.

What to do?

  1. If your comment is relevant to the topic of the meeting: speak up in the meeting.
  2. If your comment is simply a gut reaction: keep it to yourself for a minute and listen a little closer to the conversation. It’s possible that the statement you reacted to was only part of the story.
  3. Wait until after the meeting: if it was really that good or bad, save it for a private discussion after the meeting is over.

Rule 2: Double-Check Who Your Email Is Going to

Due to the fast pace of business, we are all on high alert all the time and everything is due yesterday.

Here is a likely scenario:

Someone sends an email. Then in five minutes or less that person shows up at your desk, calls, or IM’s “Did you get my email?”

Eventually, you learn to stop whatever you’re doing to read every email that comes in immediately. As result, you’re also motivated to respond right away.

Then you find out that your reply went to the wrong person(s) in the company.

How did this happen?

Perhaps you hit “reply all” out of habit instead of forwarding the email as the start of a side conversation. Perhaps the sender typed in the wrong name, or you have the same name as someone else in the company.

What to do?

  1. Before you hit send: take an extra minute to proofread everything: your recipient list, your email in general (maybe your message isn’t clear, you left out words, etc.);
  2. Try to cancel the message as soon as you realize the error. If the “Recall this message” feature doesn’t work:
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  • Resend the email with a “Please disregard,” added to the subject, and a short apology in the body of the email.
  • If you are the unintended recipient, send a reply gently letting the person they made a mistake. A simple email saying “I don’t think this was intended for me” works well.

Rule 3: Keep the Personal Separate From the Professional

If you haven’t done this yourself, you’ve heard stories like this:

A very personal email has been sent not only to the intended person, but also to the ENTIRE COMPANY.

YIKES!!! The embarrassment factor is off the charts…both for the sender and the recipients.

What to do?

ALWAYS keep your work and your personal emails separate, and avoid logging in to the online version of your Gmail, MSN, Yahoo, or Hotmail accounts from your work issued laptop (or desktop computer).

It's easier to combine personal and business emails into a single location so you can keep an eye on both. However, now that our cell phones are as smart and powerful as our laptops (tablets, etc.), combining email address books is no longer necessary.

Rule 4: Be Aware of Your Audience

Even if your email is intended for a specific audience, it has the potential of being forwarded to anyone, anywhere in the company or beyond.

In the corporate world, you are never just writing to your friend or coworker. You should always assume that email will be read by someone higher up in the company. Your best option is to approach every email as if you are writing to your manager, your manager’s boss, or a client.

At the same time, avoid using industry jargon, acronyms, or words only your college literature professor might use. These things don’t make you look smarter… it just annoys the reader(s) and makes your message harder to understand.

RULE 5: Watch Your Language

This doesn’t just mean “no swearing” (or keep it “PG” like the movie rating) - that should be obvious. If it isn’t, expect to have a conversation with Human Resources.

‘Watch you language’ also means keep it “P.C.” (politically correct).

REMEMBER: Your email could be read by anyone inside or outside of the company. Since there is no way of knowing who the final reader might be, keep your language and your tone neutral.

What if you’re not sure?

  1. Have a trusted collogue read the email and give feedback or suggestions on how the message could be better.
  2. Write the email (with no recipients) then save it to your “draft” folder for a while. The next day (or later that day if you have a deadline), look it over.
  • Does it still say what you thought you were writing?
  • Does the email show you as the professional you are? If not, fix it or ask for help.

BE VERY CAREFUL when posting on social media.

If you are a small business owner, independent contractor, etc. – you should have separate social media pages for your business. Make sure your comments and posts should be directly related to the product or service you’re offering.

If you’ve had a bad day, don’t broadcast it on Facebook or Twitter, and don’t trash the company you work for. Your co-worker or supervisor Facebook friends (past and present) may not understand. In addition, many companies now have programs that monitor how and when their corporate name is used and by whom (check your company handbook).

Don’t forget - prospective employers will try to get into your page(s) to decide if you’re “a good fit” for the job. It doesn’t take much to put your reputation (personal brand) into question and lose out on an interview or job offer.

Your best plan: pick up the phone (yes that thing with the numbers on it) and call someone you trust to vent your frustrations.

When you work in a corporate environment, it’s important to remember that none of your communications are private. Every email you send (both internal and external) could be read by anyone who has an interest in the topic. Say the wrong thing, reply-all, or send it to the wrong person, and you could be putting your professional reputation (personal brand), your job, and the company at risk.

In the end, the best advice is to just use your common sense and keep the personal separate from business as much as you can. As the 1972 movie The Godfather reminds us—“It’s not personal, it’s business.”

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