Enhance Your Professional Image With Effective E-mail Communication

Woman emailing on laptopYour work-related e-mail is just one component of your larger professional image and should be treated with the same consideration and thoughtfulness you would give to planning an important business meeting or phone call.  To leave a more positive impression on your reader, avoid making these common e-mail mistakes:

Leaving the subject line blank or too generic.
Given the increasing volume of e-mail, a good subject line is required if you want your message read in a timely manner. The subject line should give a quick summary of your message. “Hi” or “Hello” will look like spam or a virus to most users these days and may go ignored or be deleted. If you write a meaningful subject line, your e-mail will be found quickly if needed, and if you correspond frequently, it will help your reader identify it from a large group of your e-mails.

Failing to change the subject line to match a new subject.
Don’t just hit reply, especially if the subject of the e-mail exchange evolves into some new, but related, topic. Label each message accurately, “Joe Smith’s contact info,” “Project X Graphics,” or “SMU’s home page.” This helps your reader find a specific document in a message folder more quickly. If you change the subject completely, start a new message instead of continuing to use reply.

Skipping the greeting.
E-mail more closely resembles a hard-copy letter than say, instant messaging or texting. And it still begs for a greeting. Begin with “Dear Mr. Smith,” “Dear Janice,” “Hello Don,” or just “Don.” Leaving off the greeting can make the tone of your e-mail seem cold.

Not proofreading.
Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that e-mail is informal and, therefore, doesn’t warrant careful proofreading and editing. Remember, this e-mail will create an impression about you, the composer. Using correct grammar, spelling, proper capitalization, and punctuation will reflect on your professionalism and your value for high quality work. Use spellchecker and grammarchecker, but don’t rely on them to catch every mistake. Spellchecker won’t catch misused words, only misspelled ones, and sometimes the grammarchecker will recommend a change that isn’t actually correct. And JIC you were wondering, IMHO, it’s usually best if you leave “LOL,” “OMG,” “BRB,” and similar communication shortcuts for instant messaging or texting, K?

Check your e-mail for the following:email button

  • Is it grammatically correct?
  • Is your punctuation accurate?
  • Are all the words spelled correctly?
  • Are all the included hyperlinks functioning properly?
  • Is the content clear and formatted to promote easy reading?
  • Did you say what you needed to say?
  • Was your “tone” appropriate?
  • Did you include any needed attachments, and will they open easily on a variety of devices?

Writing your version of the great American novel.
Keep e-mail messages concise and to the point. Use only a few paragraphs with a few sentences per paragraph, and don’t be tempted to just write longer sentences. People skim through e-mail mostly, so excessive text probably won’t get digested. If the e-mail is getting lengthy, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting to discuss face-to-face. If you can’t do that, then summarize the information in the e-mail and send details via an attachment. Also be aware that new communication tools, such as Lync, are being rolled out to campus. Take advantage of their features to improve your ability to communicate effectively. 

Forwarding e-mail indiscriminately or without getting permission.
Too many times I’ve received an e-mail that contained forwarded messages that I shouldn’t have been given. The sender either forgot to delete that information or didn’t realize the possible impact of simply forwarding all of it onward. There have been numerous cases where confidential information has gone public because of someone’s lack of discernment or attention to detail. The best way to avoid making that mistake is to simply get permission to forward it onward.

The same logic applies to e-mails you send that might get forwarded on. Face it, once it’s left your outbox, you’ve lost control of that document. So think twice before using the internet (e-mail, instant messenger, etc.) to send anything that you wouldn’t want disclosed in a court of law or broadcast on the nightly news. If you have to send sensitive materials electronically, consider sending as a secured document with a password or putting it in a locker folder and granting that person access to it. You can grant people access even if they’re not an SMU employee. If it’s overly sensitive information, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting, and deliver the information in person.

Forgetting your signature.
Yes, they see your e-mail address at the top of the e-mail, but your reader may want to call you or send you documents that cannot be e-mailed. Creating a formal signature block with your office phone, fax number, mailing address, physical address, and e-mail address leaves your e-mail with a polished, professional look. If you don’t want them to call you directly, then create multiple signatures that have exactly the information you want to share. Then inserting the right one is just a couple of clicks away.

Expecting your reader to reply immediately.Man on phone with computer
Not everyone is sitting in front of the computer with his or her e-mail open. In fact, I advise people to do exactly the opposite by turning off their new e-mail alerts and/or closing down their e-mail program completely while working on important tasks. This helps keep them focused on what’s important, not anxiously awaiting the daily Groupon announcement.

When my friend, the professional organizer, is working on a big project, she uses an automatic reply that states “I will check my e-mail at 10am and 2pm each day. If this is an emergency and you need a quick response to your e-mail, please call my assistant or send me a text message.” On campus, if you need a quick reply, inform your recipient via a Lync message or a phone call. You might discover your reader isn’t even in the office at all and that you may need a different course of action.

Using e-mail when the subject is emotionally-laden.
Your e-mail recipient doesn’t get the richness of information (facial expressions, voice tone, and non-verbals) that would be present in a face-to-face conversation. Even phone conversations can be problematic when there is tension or emotion associated with a discussion. These topics are best handled quickly, in person, and in private. You can save yourself a lot of conflict if you’ll keep this particular rule in mind.

If you absolutely must communicate via e-mail, choose your words carefully and thoughtfully. Put yourself in the other person’s place and imagine how your words may come across on a cold, lifeless computer screen. Definitely refrain from sarcasm, and don’t fool yourself into thinking a smiley face at the end will send the right tone. It won’t. 🙁

A well-written e-mail can project a powerful impression and help you create positive, professional relationships. However, e-mail is just one communication tool, and our technology is getting better all the time, so stay up-to-date on the latest innovations in communications by visiting the OIT website on a regular basis.

About Lorea Seidel

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