The Rules of Business Email

Recently I received an email from a prospective business partner that read something like this:

“steve – i really want to move forwrd w/this project!! But b4 we do, i am checking in with bill. Ill let u know what happens!”

Maybe it’s because I am an exacting writer that I was really put off by that correspondence, but I actually think it’s because, like you, I am a professional, and I still expect people to write in a professional manner. In the end, and partly because of that email, I chose not to work with the people in question. If she was so sloppy in such an important communication, with what else would she be sloppy?

Sure, I understand that email can be a quick and easy way to communicate a business idea, especially when people are composing them more and more on their mobile phones. But I also get that it is still a business idea. As the old commercial goes, “People judge you by the words you use.”

I say that writing in proper English should still be expected in business. Are there times when you know the person well and shorthand is acceptable? Of course. But that should be the exception, not the rule.

Let me suggest a few good email rules for business:

1. Write emails in proper English: Business today is far less formal than even a decade ago and that is mostly a good thing. Ties are fading away and people are sharing more personal items in blogs and on Facebook.

While all well and good, all that personalization does not mean that your email should not be written well, or properly, especially email to people whom you do not know well. Given that email has largely taken the place of the written letter and memo, it usually needs to be treated as such. If you want to be taken seriously, your emails should be properly formatted, without abbreviations and smiley faces. Write in whole sentences. Properly format them.

Of course this rule does not apply for long threads going back and forth, but generally speaking, you can’t go wrong if you write well.

2. The emails you receive should also be grammatically correct. It is equally true that there is nothing wrong with expecting that most of the business emails you receive will contain words spelled out, spelled properly, and which contain the proper use of grammar and punctuation.

Old fashioned? Yes, I guess so.

3. There is no rush. People get into trouble with email when they rush a response, or worse, send the email to the wrong people. Slow down there, cowboy! Yes, email is an immediate medium, and yes, people have a right to expect a timely response, but timely need not mean immediate. It is perfectly fine sometimes to say, “Thanks for your email. We will be getting back to you on this in a few days.” As I always tell my daughters: Writing is re-writing. Even with email.

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