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Write Good Business Emails

Preamble
Is your inbox overrun but you still haven’t received the one document you actually need? Could you be communicating better via email so that you are better understood? Michael Brevetta, Head of Tax Compliance at Standard Chartered, provides tips and examples on sending out better emails at work to help you get the job done well.

Gain Actionable Insights to:

  • Structure and write emails that will get you what you need from your colleagues and clients
  • Learn what to write and what NOT to ensure that your writing is professional and efficient
  • Understand how keeping the bigger picture in mind and writing for context and audience will enhance your emails
Clear and Concise Communication

Grande caffè latte. Extra shot. No foam, with a caramel swirl and chocolate sprinkles.

On your early morning coffee run, you want things to run like clockwork. You enter Starbucks, stand in line, say the magic words and receive your coffee. You want your coffee made just as you asked.

It’s always much easier to put it out there correctly the first time, rather than to backtrack later and try to explain what you meant. Likewise, writing clear and concise emails without ambiguity is essential in virtually all industries and situations. If you get it right from the start,  you, and your colleagues or clients, won’t have to deal with the myriad issues that can follow poor communication in the business world.

Thus, good writing is not merely a theoretical exercise for grammar pedants.  To understand why, think about the problems that poor writing causes:

  1. It will cost you or your company business.  Your clients or customers won’t buy products or services that they can’t understand.
  2. It wastes time. You will waste your time, and that of your recipients, rewriting or explaining unclear messages. Worse still, a confused recipient may take the wrong action in response to your message, requiring him or her to do the work again, which may result in a missed deadline or unnecessary delay in your desired outcome.
  3. It will undermine you, your team, and your company. If your recipients consistently receive from you emails that are unfocused, unclear, or rife with jargon or irrelevant details, you will lose their trust.
  4. It is dangerous. Especially in situations in which you must communicate the correct or best course of action, such as in legal, regulatory, or safety matters, any confusion or ambiguity can have dire consequences.
  5. It will cause your readers to focus more on the form of your communication than the substance. The impact of your good ideas will be lost if your readers must sift through poor writing to find them.

In my leadership role in tax compliance for a large bank, part of my job is to ensure that the department communicates our messages to the wider organisation promptly, concisely, and without ambiguity. I frequently get involved in the writing and editing of my subordinates’ emails because I have seen the havoc caused by unclear or ambiguous communication.

When you order coffee, you expect to receive exactly what you have ordered. The same applies to the replies you receive from the recipients of your email messages.  Just as you would not expect your barista to intuit your order, you should not expect your recipients to be mind readers. If you find yourself thinking about your reader, ‘he must have known what I meant,’, it’s likely that your writing is unclear or ambiguous and it’s not your reader’s fault. It’s time to review how you structure and write your email messages.

Rant over. Where should you begin?


Start With the End in Mind

Start each message or document by thinking about why you are writing it. What is the point of the email? Who needs to read it? How much background information or detail does the recipient need? Do not unnecessarily copy the world or to burden your reader with unnecessary details. Always start with your audience and purpose in mind.

“Once you know why you’re writing the email, then the structure can begin to take shape.”

What message do you want to send? What’s the ultimate outcome? What do you expect your recipient to do? Are you confirming or memorialising the details of a meeting or discussion, providing information to your reader, or do you really want your recipient to take action? Before you type your first word, you must know what you want your email to achieve.


Here are a few points to ponder:

  1. Don’t be vague.  Articulate your key message or request clearly, and do so early in the email; your reader shouldn’t have to search for it or guess.
  2. Use the active rather than the passive voice.  Use shorter paragraphs and sentences, and ‘smaller’’ words.  Use more nouns, fewer adjectives, and fewer adverbs. (More on style later)
  3. If you find that you are struggling to convey your key points clearly, stop and spend more time structuring before you resume writing..
  4. Remember to write for your reader. If your reader is well-versed on the topic, you needn’t provide as much background information.  If you’ve had many dealings with your client, your messages should demonstrate your understanding of his or her needs, objectives, and concerns. If you need your superior to make a decision, include only the relevant information he or she needs to make it, and provide your recommendations clearly and unambiguously. (More on this in the next section)

If you do not clearly articulate the issue or desired outcome, you cannot expect your recipient to match your expectations. By starting with the end in mind, you can write emails that will communicate what you need to achieve.

Writing With Your Reader in Mind

Imagine that a banker without a legal or compliance background is concerned with the propriety of his customer’s instruction.  He wonders whether there could be a legal issue or regulatory concern with respect to the customer or transaction. As he should, the banker escalates the matter to his legal or compliance colleague. She then analyses the situation and concludes that, in isolation, the instruction shouldn’t be problematic, but that the customer’s wider circumstances should be assessed comprehensively using applicable procedures to determine whether there are related issues or risks.

Now imagine that the compliance officer responds to the banker’s query by writing ‘the transaction is not a problem, but consider broader risks.’ The banker then carries out the customer’s instruction, does not undertake any additional assessment, and, ultimately, there is a breach of an applicable regulation.  The example is extreme, but it illustrates the pitfalls of failing to put yourself in your reader’s shoes.

This scenario demonstrates the important distinction between correctness and completeness. The compliance officer didn’t make a careless mistake. What she wrote was technically correct, but she didn’t complete the thought, or, worse still, she assumed that the banker could ‘read between the lines.’

As a manager, I review many of my team’s documents and emails. Often, when I edit someone’s writing for clarity, they’ll say “You know what I meant!” That doesn’t cut it. The words on the page or screen must convey the meaning, unsupported by any other information or assumption (unless it is cited clearly).

Further, when you write something today, you know what it means and may clarify your intended meaning if asked (as inefficient as that may be). But if someone were to ask you about that email a year from now, will you be able to provide the context? What if you were to leave the company? All the contextual knowledge will be gone with you.

Now that you know the importance of completing your thought and having a detailed email, how do you structure and edit your email to get your point across well?

Start With the Conclusion

In law school, we learnt a methodology for analysis called IRAC: Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. Following the IRAC method ensures that one’s analysis: (1) clearly articulates the question or problem, the underlying facts and circumstances, and the relevant law; (2) applies the law to the facts; and (3) based on that application, reaches an accurate conclusion.  Broadly, the same methodology can be applied to business emails. In the business context, I’d make one change, however:  I would start by stating the conclusion first and then spend the rest of the email explaining, and then re-stating it.

Especially if your email involves a detailed analysis, the person reading the email may not have time to delve into all the details. If you start with the issue, and follow the IRAC structure ending with the conclusion, the reader has to read it all the way through to know your point. If somebody doesn’t have that time – and if the transaction is time sensitive – a clear yes or no is good to start with. He or she can then read into the details if they need to.

If somebody asked you whether they could go ahead with a transaction without breaching certain requirements? You could start with: No, you can’t. Then, you could continue by listing the issues present with the types of transactions in question, what kind of reporting or form of due diligence they can be subjected to; and if they have yet to complete that due diligence, you could set out the next statute that is required. Following which, you can provide an application of the facts at hand.

Style

Write in short sentences and paragraphs, and get right to the point with no ambiguity. That’s what business writing should be about. It shouldn’t be flowery; use ‘smaller’ words, more nouns, and fewer adjectives and adverbs. It also isn’t a conversation. The way we speak and write in informal conversations, or in friendly text messages (i.e., the use of slang, ‘lol’, or emojis) is not appropriate in business emails. Use the active rather than the passive voice (e.g., ‘The team analysed the data’ is more powerful and direct than ‘The data were analysed’).

I’m not a fan of starting things with ‘Hi’. If you want to be formal, you can put ‘Dear’ but just starting with the person’s name is perfectly acceptable – “Michael, Here’s the document you requested.” There’s no need to ask how they are or how their morning was. You can just pop over to your colleagues’ desk and ask them how their morning was, or you can use the instant message communicator on your screen instead. Business emails are not the place for that.

I read an article recently about exclamation points which wrote that people aren’t using them in contexts that don’t require an exclamation (e.g., ‘Thanks for arranging the meeting!’ or ‘Where’s page five of the merger report!’) and are instead using them to show enthusiasm or sincerity. If you’re writing a WhatsApp message to your friend, then that’s fine, but that sort of informality is likely to negatively affect your credibility and doesn’t belong in a business email.

All this is, however, industry and company culture dependent. If informality is the norm in your company’s culture, then take the lead from others more senior than yourself.

Jargon

Every industry and organisation has its own jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms. There’s a sense of belonging in using these. But if you’re going to use any of these, exercise restraint.  Be sure to define an acronym on its first use. Don’t merely assume that your reader understands internal or external references or terms.  I deal with tax laws and multiple jurisdictions and they all have different names that you can write shorthand. It’s important that you don’t assume that your reader knows everything.

Don’t use pseudo-business jargon or puffery either. It’s a pet peeve of mine because it’s lazy and robs your writing of credibility.  For example, don’t refer to ‘takeaways’ unless you’re ordering lunch, and few things described as ‘revolutionary’, ‘dynamic’, or ‘cutting-edge’ actually are.

Business phrases that people use to sound smart like ‘swim lane’, ‘the ball’s in your court’, ‘I’m going to punt on this issue’, or ‘synergy’ annoy me. They are phrases that are commonly used, but they obscure the plain meaning of what the writer is trying to convey.

When you think about using certain English language phrases, always ask yourself if you are being as concise and clear as you could be. Is that term going to be understandable to your colleagues in countries where English isn’t the native language?

There’s a lot of jargon that people who aren’t native English speakers simply won’t get. Idioms are not easily understandable. If you’re working in a multinational organisation where you’re dealing with colleagues who won’t necessarily understand the meaning straight away, don’t use such idioms or phrases. These colleagues are going to look at those sentences and think – What are you talking about? What does that have to do with the topic at hand?

Phrases and statements like these drive people crazy, create delays and cause a lack of understanding. Ultimately, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Length

Depending on what your objective is, your email length will vary but you should try to keep the email as short as possible. Generally, I think that the reader of your email shouldn’t have to scroll. If there’s a need to scroll, consider an attachment. You can say, “Here’s the issue and here’s the conclusion. The details are all set out in the attached documents.”

There are, however, situations in which a long email is absolutely what’s required. Put yourself in the shoes or eyes of your reader.

I once worked for somebody who was on the go a lot, which meant that this person needed a lot of detail and context within emails. So, attachments were a problem. But if you know that your reader is going to be using a phone to read that email, you’ll want to keep the email as short as possible. There’s nothing worse than being in an airport waiting to board a plane and your colleague writes, “can you please review this spreadsheet urgently?”

Be Careful of What You Put in Writing

A certain amount of caution in business emails is a good idea. Especially if you’re writing things in the heat of the moment when something has gone wrong and tempers have flared.

I’ve seen careers – not only those of junior staff members who may not have known better, but also those of very senior people who clearly should have – ruined by strongly worded or ill-considered emails sent in haste, frustration, or anger.

In our digital age,  putting something in writing is permanent, and could potentially create problems in the future. Think about how the email will be used, who will see it, and how it may be perceived in hindsight.

Remember that when you send an email, it may be read by many more people than your intended recipient. Avoid using the ‘reply to all’ function and check (and double check) that you’ve used the correct email address for your intended recipient. Once you hit ‘send’, your words are likely to be ‘out there’ forever, whether or not you intend them to be. So make sure that you don’t write anything in an email that can be construed as disparaging or disrespectful, or that is likely to be misread or misinterpreted. You would definitely want to avoid writing emails in anger.

Although many younger professionals seem to prefer the indirectness of written communication, don’t use email when you have the option to make a phone call or meet someone face-to-face.

3 Steps to Take in 24 Hours
  1. Read What You Have Written
    What is the point you want to bring across? Is your writing supporting this point? Are you using only the essential words? Print all important documents to edit ruthlessly.
  1. Be Aware of Your Language
    Use language that the reader will understand, and remove jargon. Avoid using idioms, or lofty phrases. Be concise and clear.
  1. Be Responsible for What You Have Written
    Are you aware of what you have put into writing? Are you comfortable with what you have written? Be careful of how you word your emails. Remember, context is everything. “You know what I meant” carries no weight.

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