How to write emails and influence people

Email is one of the most convenient ways of communicating with your business contacts. It is direct and fast but can often rub people up the wrong way if you ignore some unwritten rules of email etiquette. Obviously all scenarios differ, so this article is intended as a guide only.

Email communication can be very open to misinterpretation since most respond immediately without time for reflection. Respond carefully to heated emails. It is often better to come back to that message with a carefully constructed approach rather than fire off retaliation in the same 'keyboard warrior' fashion. Always bear in mind that email does not have the advantages of face-to-face communication where facial expressions will aid interpretation. Always read back what you type and ask yourself how you would feel on receiving that message.

As with any communication, always decide what your objective is for that message. Your request or message should be very clear from the start of the email.

Know your audience. Is email the best way to communicate here? Do I know that they can't read a certain format of attachment or that they prefer a text not HTML email?

Try to match your message length to the purpose of the message: if you are only making a quick query, then keep it short and to the point. As a general rule of thumb, the style of writing in an email is much terser than that of a letter.

So having decided that email is your best way of communicating, you know what you want to say to who and what response you want:

Personalisation

Most people have different email addresses for different roles – personal email for home and a more public business address. Beyond that, some people have different email addresses for different tasks – some 'published' i.e. freely available and others unpublished, enabling them to prioritise time spent dealing with those less likely to contain unwanted mail. Besides tailoring email messages to the relevant address, most will not thank you for including an 'unpublished' address on an email CC'd to 25 other people. Copy people into an email only when necessary and know the difference between copying (CC) and blind copying (BCC).

Personalisation will stand you apart from spam when this is not a warm contact, so do your groundwork. Spammers do not care about who they send email to and this shows. Use your prospect's name, and tailor the email – and language – to what you know about them. Ensure you are up to date with spam law of 2003, which makes spam illegal unless there is an existing customer relationship with the recipient, or the recipient has given their permission to receive material. A fine of up to £5,000 can be imposed for each breach of the new legislation.

Ensure the address you are sending the email from is relevant – certainly avoid free email addresses which look unprofessional and may well prevent your message from getting through a spam filter.

Structuring your email

Subject header

The subject header plays a vital role in ensuring the email gets read, especially if that contact is not familiar with the sender's name. (If the subject of the email changes in ongoing communication then we would suggest that you change the subject header to reflect this – it's easier to track later.)

Keep the subject concise. We'd say 10 words max. Emails with no subject may get read but it is discourteous to duck out of introducing the message – and a big 'no no' if this is the first contact. Similarly any words that lend themselves to appearing more like spam 'Important message!' or 'Urgent!' (and anything with exclamation marks) are also likely to get deleted if the sender's name is not recognised.

If the email is a sales email then this is your only way to promote your message – it has to intrigue and interest the reader. You are requesting a moment of your recipient's time so use this line to focus on the benefit you can offer your prospect – they want to hear what's in it for them rather than anything about your company – and avoid the 'hard sell'. Creating an interest to prompt them to open the email is something that you should invest the most time in. (See spam legislation for new laws regulating unsolicited mail.)

Email body

Salutation – there are no hard and fast rules here as a lot depends on the familiarity you have with the recipient. You should know your customer and how they like to be addressed though. If you are writing to a generic address (sales@) it is better to phone ahead for a contact name that you can mark the email for the attention of – it's obviously easier to follow up such an email too.

Creating trust and credibility will be helped by the language you use – so avoid 'hype' and be matter of fact in your approach.

Layout

The body of the email should also be concise.
Call to action: get to the point – if you want something, be clear about your requirements/reason for contact – what do you want and when. The first paragraph should outline all the main points: who/when/what/where/why/how. Alternatively finish off the email with what your expectations are (although you run the risk of not holding the reader’s attention this far).

  • Always bear in mind it is difficult to read never ending blocks of solid text on screen.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use sub headings if necessary.
  • Never send an email IN CAPITALS THROUGHOUT it is deemed to be the equivalent of shouting.Use single line spacing with an extra line between paragraphs.


Information overload

Only keep enough of the previous message as is needed for context and reference – this stops people relentlessly scrolling up and down unnecessary information.

Attachments - some people would rather have more information in a document they can read later, if they have expressly requested it, in a format they can read. Hogging bandwidth without requesting permission to send a large attachment is not a good idea however. Again many will assume attachments are too risky to open from an unrecognised source. Most would prefer a URL link to access additional information online.

Grammar and clarity

Fast communication has meant sloppy grammar in some cases. Be polite and always check your punctuation, spelling and give the acronyms and complicated terminology a miss!

Contact details

Always ensure the recipient has all your contact details. Include an email 'signature', which is 4-6 lines of contact details at the bottom of the email, visually separated by a line from the body. The signature is often used to briefly reiterate the strapline of your company or brand. Be very careful if adding famous/philosophical quotes here (humorous or otherwise). Some can be inappropriate at best and pompous at worst.

Read Receipts

Many people would say 'don't bother'. In most cases it is seen as an invasion of privacy and only serves to annoy the recipient before they’ve even read your email. Most will not allow a confirmation of receipt message to be sent anyway.

Most people have so many emails to deal with, marking the email high priority can be fruitless as well. If it's really urgent then perhaps you should be calling rather than emailing?

Data protection and spam laws

If your business holds customer details (either on paper or computer) it is a legal requirement that you comply with Data Protection legislation.

Data protection laws are concerned with protecting the use of a person's name, address, phone number, bank records, medical records, etc.

A full version of the Data Protection Act can be found here: http://www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk/eventual.aspx?id=34


UK spam legislation

Legislation recently introduced protects individuals from spam, or unsolicited mail. Online marketers can only send email pitches with prior consent of the recipient, except where the recipient is an existing customer of the sender.
Emails must offer an opt-out clause. Any breaches of these legislations could result in a fine of £5,000.
Click here for more information on the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003


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