Criteria for Success:
Successful professional emails:
- Use a brief, direct subject line
- Maintain a professional tone throughout the message, including an appropriate greeting with title/name and an appropriate conclusion and signature
- Prioritize the most important information, and eliminate unnecessary details
- Are direct and concise, but provide enough information–such as contact and timeline information–for a complete response with limited back-and-forth
Identify Your Purpose:
For any professional email to realize its full potential, it must be 1) opened, 2) read and understood by the recipient, and 3) capable of supporting an appropriate response. An email designed to maximize clarity and readability will have better chances of success at each stage.
Analyze Your Audience:
Professional emails should maintain a fairly formal tone throughout, to show that you understand the role and value the time and the response of the recipient. Start off on the right foot with the proper title (see Skills below). Additionally, the message should include all the necessary information for your target reader(s) to fully understand and respond–but no more information than this. Researchers, administrators and other scientific professionals are extremely busy and inundated with emails. Getting straight to the point maximizes their time, and improves the chance that your full message will be read.
Use a Strong Subject Line
We all get more emails than we read each day. Your subject line should convince your reader that this message is important and relevant. Including very specific keywords will make the content of the message clear—and this will also help in case your recipient needs to search for the message at a later time.
Additionally, subject lines might get truncated on phones or tablets. So it’s best to make the subject line brief, OR try to place important keywords first in the subject line, so that they’ll be read, even if a phone chops up that message.
Here are some examples of how to apply these strategies to improve wordy, vague, or back-heavy subject lines:
|Complete your EHS training||EHS training due Monday Nov. 26|
|Poster title and abstract submission form due next Wednesday for upcoming BE Career Expo||Due Wed 10/17: BE Career Expo Poster Title and Abstract|
|Waste pickup||Trizol waste container ready for pickup|
|Questions||20.101 Student Presentation Format?|
|Finding time to meet and discuss project updates||Committee Meeting 10/18?|
Use Appropriate Titles/Introductions
When corresponding with someone for the first time, it’s a good rule of thumb to USE THE MOST FORMAL TITLE that is appropriate.
Possible titles, in decreasing order of formality:
Mr./Ms. (avoid Mrs. Or Miss)
Similarly, if you’re corresponding with someone for the first time, be sure to open with a formal introduction, such as “Dear Title Name.” If you do not know the exact group or recipient, you can use “To whom it may concern at/with Group/Organization.” These formal introductions may feel awkward or stiff, but are the most professional and polite way to introduce your message. Throughout your message, maintain respectful, professional language. After you receive one or more replies, you may be able to switch to a less-formal tone, if that matches the formality of the response(s) you receive. (But when in doubt, it’s always best to err on the side of too formal or too respectful, especially when communicating with someone in a senior or supervising role!)
Don’t Bury the Lead
Front-load your key point/goal as soon as possible, ideally within the first few lines of text. This increases the likelihood that your most important information is read and addressed. Similarly, if you are providing a list of questions or issues (see below), make sure to cover the most important/urgent questions or thoughts first, and work down through less important details.
Make it Brief, Clear, and Informative
There are several actions you can take within the body of your email to make your message clear and concise.
- Use short, succinct sentences. Use active verbs and eliminate unnecessary details. A concise sentence is much more likely to be clear… and more likely to be read in full!
- Emphasize important points of your email by bolding or italicizing dates, locations, questions or keywords.
- Visually separate distinct topics by inserting additional spaces between paragraphs.
- Make use of numbered lists (like this one!) if you have many important questions or thoughts. Try to limit each numbered entry to a single topic or thought. This helps the reader keep track of what you are asking, provides a template for their own answers, and helps ensure that all of your questions get addressed in the response. (Generally, it’s best to place the most important question or point first–but you can also consider how the order of your questions will best help accomplish the objective of your email.)
While succinct and direct, your email should still include all the information the recipient needs to respond completely. This includes:
- How should they contact you? If you need to include information such as a phone number or address, make sure to do so.
- When do you need a response? If the issue is time-sensitive, make sure you communicate any deadlines you are working with (and make sure that you provide a reasonable window of time for responding or completing tasks).
- What should their response include? Make it clear what you need–do they need to provide specific information, contact a certain person, or answer a certain question? The clearer you are in communicating your goals and needs, the better chance that your recipient will understand how to address them.
Example of these principles in action:
|Dear Dr. Lee,
Thank you for sending over the set of papers, and also for sending over the datafiles. I’ve begun to review those readings, and I find several of them extremely useful, including the Smith et al review. I’d be interested in discussing these at a later date, when we’ve made more progress on the timeseries for the project. I also really appreciate you sending the datafiles for the multilocus analyses, which is why I’m writing–I have a few questions about those files. Do you know which source genome is “genome4.fas?” Also, do you have the original data files that were used to build Figure 2? And what did you use to design the graph in Figure 3? Additionally, we have collected some new data and have been discussing the best possible time for the team to meet to go over these results. It looks like one option would be this Thursday, March 25, sometime between 2 and 4 pm. Would you be available to meet then? Let me know ASAP, just so I can make sure to book a room with a projector to show all the slides and tables.
|Dear Dr. Lee,
Thanks for sending over the multilocus analysis data. I reviewed the datafiles, and I have a few questions:
Also, would you be available to meet to discuss some new data this Thursday, March 25, at 2 pm? Please let me know by tomorrow afternoon if this is possible, so I can reserve the conference room.