Get the Response You Want With Friendly, Professional Email

by Julie Rains on 30 April 2013 6 comments

There is an art to being casual and friendly yet professional and firm via email. While I won’t claim to be the master of the perfect email, I can say that I tend to get positive results. (See also: The Letter Always Wins)

Like many of you, I read and write lots of work-related and personal emails every day. The subjects cover professional assignments, updates from sports coaches and music directors, alerts about scouting activities, check-ins with those who may need help, details about group projects, and more. While some messages are meant merely to inform, others are designed to solicit feedback, encourage involvement, facilitate decision-making, build relationships, and reinforce teamwork

Having been part of highly effective communications and having learned from mistakes (both as a recipient and a sender), I have identified a few keys to conveying a message clearly and in a positive tone.

Appear Calm and Upbeat

Act serene no matter how you feel. A calm and positive approach endears you to your audience and makes your message more compelling.

Even if you are frustrated about the lack of response from your friends and colleagues, upset about a situation that needs to be remedied, or have just cause to be angry, expressing negative emotions is almost always a bad idea. For whatever reason, negativity is amplified via email. Recipients will see you as incapable and flighty at best, and deranged and unstable at worst.

Set the tone by starting with a positive statement. For example, express gratitude for help with a project, congratulate on a recent accomplishment, or simply mention that you enjoyed a recent event with your recipients.

For the core of your message, be clear about what you need. To get support from others, resist heavy-handedness and, instead, be encouraging.

Give All Pertinent Information

Cover everything needed to respond, participate, etc. in the email. Give the details about who, what, when (including day of the week, date, and time), where, why, and how in the message, even if you have included that information in the subject line or earlier emails.

Sure, this tip seems like a no-brainer, but I still see messages that don't contain the basics.

And while it's true that people don't like to read long messages, getting all the details in one message is preferable to having others fill in the blanks with wrong assumptions.

Use the Draft Function

When you need to write an important email, compose the content and save in draft mode. Review the next day and make edits before sending. This simple routine (write, sleep, edit, and then send) has helped me to be a more effective communicator.

The day after writing the draft, I will often find these problems:

  • A tone that is frantic or harsh
  • Unnecessary details, which distract readers from key points
  • Imprecise language
  • Misspelled words
  • Too much information about my personal views
  • Tactlessness about a sensitive subject

Changes needed are usually easy to recognize. You can make edits and review one more time before hitting the "send" button.

Be Clear About What You Want

Don't be mysterious about your wants and needs. Be clear about the type of response required and an appropriate timeline. Even if you write an explanation of what sort of information you need, don’t bury the question in a dense paragraph or assume that it’s obvious what the next step should be.

State the type of action required and the deadline in a separate sentence.

This tactic doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the responses you want in the designated timeline (sorry, but people are just too overwhelmed to give you what you need all the time, every time). But it will help you to avoid writing an email clarifying the response you hoped for. By being clear the first time, you’ll be able to move forward faster.

Allow Time for a Response

Give people time to get back with you.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned that I have not received a response to an email. The intended recipient then indicates that she hasn't checked email within the last 48 hours, and my response is that I sent the message several days ago, kindly noting that I didn’t expect an instantaneous response. These situations made me realize 1) many (other) people don't allow enough time for a response; and 2) some folks are not willing to engage in email conversations.

Still, it's good practice to allow ample time for a thorough reading of the message, contemplation about the response (perhaps the person needs to check an offline schedule), and composition of a return email. That is, you need to put your timeline in sync with other people's schedules, not vice versa.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Be Mindful of Message Length and Format

There’s nothing wrong with a lengthy email, contrary to popular opinion. It’s better to send a thorough message one time than to pellet people with multiple emails containing bits of information, like pieces of a puzzle that they then need to fit together.

For example, if you are the head coach of a little league team, main organizer for a special event, or some other recognized leader, then you may need to send a long email occasionally. Even then, it's helpful to create headings for topic categories (use bold and/or larger fonts) and use bulleted or numbered lists to allow readers to digest information quickly.

And it’s OK to write a long missive to express yourself every once in a while. But if you overload people, they will start tuning you out. So, long messages are okay but probably should not be the default mode.

Admit Mistakes Quickly

Occasionally, you’ll write something in your email that conveys the wrong message or is just flat out wrong. Admit the mistake and provide accurate information as quickly as possible. Otherwise, recipients will think you are a sloppy or lazy communicator, or just get confused.

Manage "Reply All" Conversations

The "reply all" method that makes individual responses visible to the group is useful. But this method can clog up inboxes and cause confusion.

To remedy the "reply all" jumble of messages, particularly when the conversation involves many people, put together a recap for the group to see. This technique helps make sure you have captured all the responses to date, lets others see the responses at a glance (including the stray ones that may have replied to you only), and gives you the opportunity to prompt laggards in making their responses. The recap in a fresh new email tends to work better than another "reply all" message.

Adjust to Your Audience

If you regularly send mass emails, you can’t cater to the quirks of one or two people in a large group. But if you converse frequently with a few key people, modifying your style to match how they communicate reveals your true professionalism.

For example, some people may note the first line of an email and answer the first question, whereas others read emails thoroughly and carefully respond to all questions. To be effective (plus stay calm when trying to elicit a certain type of response), you may need to adjust your message format, length, tone, and timing.

Finally, know when to take the conversation offline. Being friendly and professional means knowing the right place to discuss sensitive or confidential information.

What techniques do you use to write friendly yet professional emails?

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Meg Favreau's picture

This is related to letting the email sit, but if I have to send a really important message that needs to go out on a short deadline, I'll often ask a friend to look it over first -- and do the same for others.

Julie Rains's picture

Great idea! I occasionally let others read emails before sending them out but typically that is if I represent a group and don't want to misspeak for other people. But I could see how a short deadline wouldn't allow you to be reflective or objective about the email so getting a friend involved could be very helpful.

Guest's picture
Ivan

Julie,

Your points on "Give All Pertinent Information" and "Be Clear About What You Want" are so true!

It is really frustrating when people treat emails as another form of text messaging. They waste everyone's time by "chatting" back and forth as opposed to composing a clear message that gets the appropriate action in the first place.

It's also worth repeating that an extra dose of "thank you" and "please" never hurts! Since it's so easy to misinterpret someone via email, it's best to proactively counter any negative thoughts by being extra polite.

Julie Rains's picture

It's definitely easy to misinterpret someone via email, esp. if you don't know someone very well. So politeness and brief pleasantries, such as the "thank you" that you mention, can help to get the right (friendly) message across.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Guest's picture

All of these are great tips.I think it the email is a very important one to a potential employer or client, taking a step away from it by saving it and going back later is the best advice. Having a fresh eye will not only help you make sure the spelling and grammar is correct but also say exactly what you want to say.

Julie Rains's picture

I find that the second look is almost always useful and worth the wait. I haven't had the need to send emails to a potential employer recently but those messages are very important and stepping away in those situations makes sense. Thanks for mentioning that Kelly!