Shirley's Articles / Email Essentials

Email Your Way To The Top

Email viruses make front-page newspaper headlines. They cost decent computer users a lot of money, they waste our time and energy, and they cause unimaginable distress to people all over the world. Could anything be worse? What about the damage that people are causing to themselves every day by taking email for granted? The familiarity and convenience of email is resulting in sloppy, careless habits that could ruin your business and your reputation just as surely as any email virus.

Electronic mail is having a phenomenal effect on the way we communicate. Email is not just a quick, easy and relatively cheap way to keep in touch with family and friends. It has also become an essential tool in business, a fundamental part of the way in which we work. However the explosive growth of email has created some problems, mainly because there have never been any guidelines on how to compose email messages, no definitive guide to common standards and expectations among writers of email. Consequently systems are being overloaded, communication is rampant, reputations are being damaged, feelings are being hurt and time is being wasted.

One of the main advantages of email is speed, but the pressure of coping with an ever-increasing mailbox is adding to the pressures people already face. This is resulting in messages being sent without much thought or planning, with important details missing, with spelling and punctuation errors, and with abbreviations that some people don’t like and others simply don’t understand. Some messages look like they are written in code! And people are even neglecting the common courtesies of a greeting and sign-off just for the sake of speed!

High on the list of annoyances when I did some research for my book Email Etiquette was unfriendly tone. Emotions are hard to convey in emails, and some people type out exactly what they would say without thinking of the tone of voice that would be used to signal their emotions. With email all we have are words. Without the right tone misunderstandings could easily happen, or you could offend and perhaps lose an important business contact – or even friend! Good writers learn to choose their words very carefully and get the tone just right.

Email and information overload is another serious problem, with some managers receiving hundreds of messages every day. But if we are suffering from overflowing inboxes, how much of it is self-inflicted? Has it become too easy to send messages to lots of people just because you can? We must learn to use email more thoughtfully by recognising when we should and should not send messages. Do you really need to send all those CC, BCC and FWD copies? If you receive lots of messages that you don’t really need to see, tell the authors so that it doesn’t happen again. And tell your friends not to send those jokes and personal messages to your work email address. Then there’s that prolonged email exchange that lasts for days – wouldn’t it be better to pick up the phone? Email overload is contributing to a decline in oral communication skills – people send emails to the person in the next office rather than walk a few steps! So please remember that it’s good to talk and don’t let email result in the death of conversation.

As more people use email sloppy work is becoming a major annoyance. People are receiving poorly formatted messages in one continuous paragraph, poorly structured messages that are not specific in the response required, messages written all in capitals (equivalent to SHOUTING) or all in lower case, and of course messages with poor grammar, spelling and punctuation.

When I was doing some research for my book Effective Email, a friend of mine said:

When I receive a message that has lots of mistakes – spelling errors, punctuation, grammar – I think the reader has no respect for me because he/she couldn’t take just one minute to check it through before hitting ‘send’.
– Ricky Lien,

I completely agree! The Internet has made it possible for us to communicate with people from all over the world. The only way those people can form an opinion of us is by looking at the way we write! Your credibility could be ruined with one swift click of the ‘send’ button!

Today’s way of conducting business is very informal so that’s what we should aim for in our business writing too – natural, relaxed, friendly, conversational. The only place for standard boring overused clichés like Please find attached herewith, I am writing to inform you, Please be advised, I should be grateful if you would kindly, is the recycle bin! Busy businessmen and women haven’t got time to plough through loads of old-fashioned, long-winded jargon. Nor should they be subjected to abbreviated, coded, sloppy messages that are full of errors! We should take just as much care in composing email messages as we should with formal letters, memos or faxes. We should use short words and simple expressions, short sentences and short paragraphs that are clear and concise but still courteous. We should take pride in composing effective messages that are structured logically. Most of all we should identify with our readers, appreciate their feelings, and use words they will understand, written in an appropriate tone.

If you want to improve your electronic rapport with customers and colleagues, if you want to enhance your credibility and your reputation as well as your productivity, remember – it’s not a computer you are talking to – it’s a real live human being!

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Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

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