(Image from KunoCreative)
Emails are a quick and casual way to communicate, but sometimes that speed and informality brings with it a carelessness that makes your message sound weak. I don't just refer to the obvious faux pas, like not spell-checking, abusing the "reply all" function, etc. Throughout the last two weeks, I've been making a running list of ways to improve my professional emails, and at this point I think it's decent enough to share. Of course, let me know if you disagree!
1. Make your subject line descriptive. Don't assume that whoever you're emailing remembers what you're talking about, or has time to read every email they get. A descriptive subject line minimizes the amount of time someone has to spend orienting themselves once they read your email. It also helps people prioritize whether to read your email now or save it for later. They will appreciate you for making their lives easier.
2. Put your bottom line up front. This is another time saver, in line with #1. Whatever the main point of your email is, put that in the first or second line. It's frustrating to read through an entire email not knowing where the person is going. Your email is not a treasure hunt or a suprise party: saving the big reveal for the end is not a virtue.
3. Whenever possible, use the word "would" instead of "could." I first learned about the psychological difference between the words "would" and "could" in, of all places, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Aside from the fact that this is an awesome relationship book, it seems it also includes lessons for the workplace! John Gray notes that women can improve their standing with men by making this simple change in their communication: rather than asking, "Could you...", they should ask "Would you...". The difference is subtle, but Gray explains that "could" suggests the subject may be incapable of performing the task, while "would" gives the subject more credit and at the same time prompts the subject to really consider whether they want/have time/are able to perform the requested task. He offers an example of the difference in the words that really drove this point home for me: imagine that the love of your life gets down on one knee and asks you, "Could you marry me?" See? There's a difference.
4. Don't use the word "honestly." This was a tidbit I picked up in a trial practice textbook way back in high school. Prefacing a statement with "Honestly, ..." has the subtle effect of implying that the rest of your message is less than forthcoming. Why do you feel the need to signal your honesty? Resist the urge.
5. Exchange the word "really" for the word "very." As in, "I'm very excited about taking a deposition on Monday" instead of, "I'm really excited about taking a deposition on Monday." Again, a very subtle difference, but this goes along with point #4---"really" is a word implying genuineness, so setting off one sentence with the word "really" subconsciously implies that you're not being particularly genuine in the rest of your message. The word "very" provides the same enthusiasm and emphasis without the implication of dishonesty elsewhere.
6. Use social guidance to dictate your use of exclamation points. Exclamation points have a way of making emails look more juvenile. However, some people are comforted by them, since it sometimes suggests a friendlier tone. My personal rule of thumb is never to use exclamation points in my first email to someone new. I then take my exclamation cues from that person's responses. Do they use the occasional exclamation to express emphasis or gratitude? If so, then I feel comfortable doing the same with this person---more because they have indicated to me that exclamation points are the way that they understand and convey these emotions via email. Of course, all things within reason; if your subject ends every sentence in an exclamation point (or several), it probably does not suit you to go that far with your punctuation. (Note: everybody around here is my superior, so I depend on them to set the tone for our communications. Perhaps if you're sending an email to someone below you in your organization's hierarchy, it would fall to you to introduce the occasional exclamation point into the conversation. If you notice they are never reciprocated, leave them out.)