March 31, 2017

5 ways your emails can make you look unprofessional

Daily Briefing
Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 29, 2021.

Without intonation, body language, and facial cues, it can be easy to give off the wrong impression through an email. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Shani Harmon shares expert advice for communicating the message you're going for.

4 reasons your physicians don't read your emails (and what to do about it)

Shani Harmon is the co-founder and Chief Delivery Officer of Stop Meeting Like This.

Emails are a big part of how your colleagues perceive you, Harmon writes: "Every email you send affects your professional reputation, or brand."

Harmon recommends five ways to make your emails seem more professional:

1. Keep it short

Harmon cites research showing the adult attention span is only eight seconds long, and notes that it's important to get to the point quickly. Context and backstory usually isn't as necessary as it seems. "What [the readers] need to know is inevitably a subset of everything you could tell them," Harmon writes.

2. Send only to required recipients

When entering names in your 'to' field, Harmon suggests asking yourself which recipients truly need to read your email.

"Overuse of CC reflects a political culture in which people cover their tracks by overinclusion," Harmon writes. She adds that when you over-include recipients, you also fill your own inbox, since "Reply All"'s will ultimately come back to haunt you.

3. Clarify, clarify, clarify

"There's a big difference between being concise and being terse," warns Harmon, so make sure you're giving enough context to avoid a "high volume of clarifying questions in response." If the body of your email is vague and convoluted, your readers won't be able to follow.

4. Tell them what you want

Tell your readers up front what it is you're expecting as a result of your email. If it's a question that needs a response, make that apparent right away. If it's an informative email, be sure to explain to your readers why they should care.

For example, Harmon proposes:

  • Including the type of email in the subject line;
  • Bolding the names of the recipients expected to take direct action as a result of your email; and
  • Stating the request at the beginning of the message, so that it appears in the preview pane.

5. Be nice

Though it might seem like an obvious, Harmon points out that many email-senders "skip the niceities" in the interest of time, or of staying direct.

But the issue with electronic communication is that "your audience may assume a message that wasn't intended." That is, emails without pleasantries can unintentionally come across as rude or insensitive.

"Take the time to be nice," concludes Harmon. "It will help your audience truly hear what you intended to say" (Harmon, Harvard Business Review, 2/6).

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