We’re all overwhelmed with email. And while it’s easy to shoot the messenger, it’s not our inbox’s fault that it keeps filling up with more and more messages. It’s ours.
Professional emails are meant to make our lives easier, not harder. But when we’re desperately banging out reply after reply just to get through our overflowing inbox, all we create is more noise, more confusion, more misunderstanding, and as a result, more emails.
When it comes down to it, the easiest way to reduce the number of emails you get each day is to learn how to write a professional email.
Forget the wishy-washy advice to check your spelling and use the right email greeting. Instead, here are the top rules from executives, business coaches, and military experts on how to write professional emails that communicate clearly and concisely.
How to write a professional email in 2019
- Be purposeful with your email format
- Use a subject line that informs, summarizes, and inspires action
- Don’t bury the lede. Start with why the reader should care.
- Follow the “SSA” of email body copy: Short, scannable, and actionable
- Banish jargon and use natural language
- Know your audience and tailor your language, style, and tone to them
- Use clear action items when emailing with multiple people
- Go through a final pre-send checklist
1. Be purposeful with your email format
Writing a professional email isn’t just about what you say. It’s about how you say it. The email format you use is as much a communication tool as what you write. Unfortunately, most advice on email formatting sounds like it was written for a letter home from summer camp.
Use a professional email address. Use a proper greeting. Etc…
The problem is that these pointers aren’t so much tactical advice as (hopefully) common sense.
Instead, for many of us, emails are the driving force behind decision making. As such, their main goal is to present information in a way that is clear, concise, and inspires action.
We’ll go into each of these sections below but at a minimum, a logical email format should include:
- The proper greeting (or none at all). Know your audience and your company’s expectations.
- Short, clear body copy in your email program’s default font size and color. Don’t distract from the message with custom fonts or weird sizes and colors.
- Brief paragraphs with spaces in between them. Walls of text are intimidating and hard to read. Keep it short. Keep it simple.
- Scannable section headers (if needed). Most professional emails should have a single goal. If you have multiple, keep them separated and clearly labeled.
- Sign off with clear action points. Make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them from this email.
2. Use a subject line that informs, summarizes, and inspires action
Once you have the right email format locked in, it’s time to think about content.
A recent survey found that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. The reason so many of those emails go unopened? Bad subject lines.
Every professional email needs a subject line. But simply having one isn’t enough to make your email get read (and responded to). Your email’s subject line serves two very specific purposes you need to be mindful of:
- States the purpose of the email. Why is this email being sent to me?
- Inspires a specific action. What does the sender want me to do?
Keep it short and opt for clarity over click-bait. Don’t use generic or vague subject lines like “reply needed” or “hello.” Instead, use “Marketing plan signoff needed by EOD Friday” or, “Connecting Peter and Jon”.
Another strategy favored by the US military is to use specific keywords in your subject line to explain what needs to be done. Here are a few examples from US Navy Veteran Kabir Sehgal:
- ACTION – Recipient needs to take an action
- SIGN – Requires a signature
- INFO – For informational purposes only (no other action required)
- DECISION – Requires a decision from the recipient
- REQUEST – Seeking permission or approval
You might not go as far as to use these prefixes. But including a short preview of the email’s purpose in the subject line is a powerful way to communicate your needs and get people to open them.
3. Don’t bury the lede: Start with why the reader should care
Once you’ve gotten your recipient to open your email you need to quickly engage them with the next steps to take.
A professional greeting is a good start. What’s more important, however, is to quickly get into why you’re messaging them in the first place. Again, the military has a good tip here.
Military professionals start their professional emails with a short statement known as the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). This sentence or two declares the purpose of the email and the action required by answering the 5 W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. (Think of it like a professional version of a tl;dr.)
This might feel a bit awkward at first, but it works for a number of reasons.
While most of us leave our ask for the end of the email, it can sometimes get lost or misinterpreted if it’s buried under a bunch of text and context. Instead, using a BLUF (or similar) frames the email around your ultimate goal. It distills the most important information into one line right away so the reader knows why they need to pay attention and care about this email.
While you might not go as far as to label the statement as a BLUF, you can adapt it to your own work environment.
For example, you might want to label it as an MIT (Most Important Thing), such as:
MIT: Final deadline for changes to the marketing plan are due Friday at 5 pm. All changes must be in the team Drive beforehand to be included.
Before you get into the details, your recipient is aware of what’s expected of them and can start thinking that way as they read your email.
4. Follow the “SSA” of email body copy: Short, scannable, and actionable
Your email body copy should support what you’ve already written. The subject line sets expectations. And your MIT, BLUF, or whatever you want to call it explains the most important action item. Now, you need to present the details.
This is often where emails go off the rails. Filling a message with lengthy details not only exhausts the reader but they often get buried in a sea of CCs and Replies.
Instead, aim to only include the most important information tied to the purpose of the email and link out to the rest. As a test, make sure your email is:
- Short: Keep messages to-the-point and clear. If additional background or information is needed, try to link out to a resource or offer a time to meet.
- Scannable: Use your email format to highlight different sections, clarify who needs to do what, and outline the flow of the email.
- Actionable: Every email needs a CTA (call to action) or clear ask. Simply presenting information and expecting people to respond or take action won’t work.
The same goes for when you respond to a professional email. Instead of lengthy replies, keep it short and to-the-point. As the organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes in The New York Times:
“Remember that a short reply is kinder and more professional than none at all. If you have too much on your plate, come clean: “I don’t have the space to add this.” If it’s not your expertise, just say so: “Sorry, this isn’t in my wheelhouse.” And if you want to say no, just say ‘no.’”
5. Banish jargon and use natural language
Part of making your professional email actionable and clear is using language everyone understands. Every workplace has its own jargon. But when you’re trying to get a response, it’s best to be as clear as possible.
Instead of resorting to a lengthy list of corporate-speak use plain language. Here’s an example from Trish Hall, the author of Writing to Persuade, on how to respond to someone who just interviewed you for a job.
What not to do
“Thank you very much for taking the time to talk today. I am certain that I will be able to contribute a great deal to your organization, especially by optimizing your relationships with the media, employing the multilevel skills I have developed over the years. I look forward to hearing from you.”
What to do
“Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. I have some additional thoughts on how you could get more media attention without adding any more staff members. For one, I think you could do more with Instagram stories. I am happy to send more details if you would like that. Looking forward to hearing from you.”
Why it works
The message is the same but much clearer and natural-sounding without the jargon. Simple language inspires a response and builds connection. Whereas jargon is more likely to put up a wall between you and the email’s recipient.
If you’re unsure what to leave out, one survey found that the most annoying jargon and phrases in professional emails are:
- “Think outside the box”
- “Circle back”
- “At a high level”
- “Table this conversation”
6. Know your audience and tailor your language, style, and tone to them
Should you be quick or chatty? Curt or courteous? Professional or casual?
How you write a professional email comes down to who it’s being sent to. Are you emailing with a co-worker or your boss? A client or a freelancer? Your audience determines your tone and style.
For example, one common piece of advice on how to write a professional email is to never include emojis, casual language, or exclamation marks. However, many workplaces have become much more casual with this.
When we surveyed over 700 professionals about using emoji in work emails, only 40% said you should never use them.
Instead, 35.6% of people say it’s OK to use them with another 22.5% saying it’s ok sometimes. (Mostly in one-on-one communications with coworkers you know but never with your boss.)
In fact, across our entire survey, one of the most common pieces of advice was to know your audience and tailor your language accordingly.
7. Use clear action items when emailing with multiple people
Every professional email needs a clear next step. What is the purpose of this email? What should the reader do now?
If you’re using a method like the Military subject lines (INFO, SIGN, DECISION, etc…) that will be clear upfront. But not all professional emails work like that.
When you’re dealing with a long email chain or replying to multiple people, you need to call out what needs to be done in a clear way.
According to our recent survey, the best ways to call out individual action items in long email chains are to:
- Use the “@” symbol to call out specific people. For example, “@Jon, please send your edits on the marketing plan by end of day Friday.”
- Reply just to the person who needs to take action. Remove the action item from the email chain and just ask the person who needs to do something.
- Use formatting like bold or italics. Respond in-line, but use different formating to make the action item stand out.
With so much of our workday spent on communications, it’s important that we respect each other’s time. Email can take over your day if you let it. But by including clear callouts, you ensure your emails are actionable.
8. Go through a final pre-send checklist
Before you send off your professional email, it’s good to give it a quick once over. This is where all the previous (aka common sense) advice on how to write a professional email comes into play.
- Do you have a clear, actionable subject line?
- Are you sending it to the right person?
- Is there a clear statement at the top that summarizes the email’s intent?
- Have you used paragraphs and formatting to make the email short and scannable?
- Did you proofread for any spelling mistakes and to remove unnecessary jargon?
- Have you included any attachments that are needed?
- Are action items clearly formatted and addressed to the right people?
- Did you include a proper greeting and sign-off?
Take a few seconds to go through your email and check it before sending.
Email has been around for decades. But its role in our workday has changed dramatically in that time. In fact, in one survey, 94% of respondents said they rely on email for managing their workload. But email was never really intended for this purpose, which is why it breaks down so easily.
Instead, to keep from drowning in our inbox, we need to know how to write a professional email that communicates what we need in a clear, concise, and actionable way.
More posts on how to write a professional email:
- How to email like a CEO
- Email Etiquette Playbook: We asked 700+ professionals how they handle email
- Forget inbox zero and do this instead
- How to get a handle on email overload
- Slack and email “cost” companies an average of $28,209 per employee every year
- 10 email canned responses that will save you hours each week