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When it comes to your professional life, what is the one communication skill you use the most?
Without a doubt, it’s email writing.
In fact, one study indicates that in 2018, the average business person sends approximately 43 business emails daily (not to mention the 97 emails, on average, they receive each day).
As a result, writing good business emails is no longer a “nice to have” skill—it’s something that you absolutely need if you want to be as effective as possible in your professional life.
An email itself seems simple. But, there’s actually quite a bit that goes into drafting a message that’s clear, concise, and polished. Let’s break down everything you need to know about improving business email writing skills.
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How to improve business email writing skills: The basics
There are key elements to every business email you send: the subject, introduction, body, call to action, and signature.
However, before we roll up our sleeves and dive into those individual parts, we’ll cover some of the more general, nuts and bolts rules you need to follow in order to produce an effective message.
Basic rule #1: Keep things short
When you have a lot to cover, it’s tempting to send a War and Peace-length note to your recipients. But, the best business emails aren’t wordy—they’re actually quite short.
Research conducted by email extension, Boomerang, states that the ideal length for an email is somewhere between 50 and 125 words.
The two paragraphs above? They come in at exactly 50 words—proving that you don’t have a ton of space to get your point across. Make it your goal to stick to that word count range, and you’ll increase your chances of getting a response.
Basic rule #2: Make things easy to read
Because we receive so many emails each and every day, people aren’t willing to dedicate tons of time and attention to your message. There are dozens of others waiting in their inboxes.
The average person only spends about 11 seconds reading an individual email, which is why you not only need to keep things short but also relatively easy to read.
Short, direct sentences, line breaks, and bulleted lists will make it easier for your recipient to extract the point of your message—without needing to invest his full attention to understand your request.
Basic rule #3: Familiarize yourself with proper etiquette
Finally, there are some unwritten email etiquette rules you’ll want to be aware of to ensure you don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers with your written communication.
First and foremost, be conscious of your recipients. Only send that message to the people who actually need to receive it. We’ve all been copied on an email that has nothing to do with us—it’s frustrating, and just leads to more clutter in our inboxes.
Additionally, if you need to send to a large group of people, make good use of that “BCC” address field. Doing so protects the privacy of your recipients—from others on that email and spammers or hackers who frequently target those large, unprotected lists.
Got it? Now that we have those basics under our belts, let’s dissect what makes a solid business email—section by section.
The subject line
The subject line is an often-overlooked piece of the email-drafting process. But, even so, it’s important—after all, it’s the very first impression of your message.
A bad subject will promptly land your note in the trash, while a strong one will improve the chances that your email actually gets read (and responded to).
Consider this your golden rule of writing email subjects: Make the intent of your message explicitly clear right from the get-go.
Too often, we rely on general subject lines like “Following Up” or “Checking In.” Not only do these give zero indication of what your email is actually about, but they also make it that much tougher for your recipient to find that message later (can you imagine how many emails they have that use that same exact subject line?).
After reading your subject, the recipient should know exactly what information or questions you’re going to include in the body of your email. You aren’t trying to hook them with something catchy or cryptic—make the purpose of your message painfully obvious.
When it comes to the length of your subject line, this is an area where slightly longer is actually better. Research from Return Path found that subject lines between 61 and 70 characters have the highest read rates.
It makes sense—too much shorter than that, and you’re likely not providing enough detail on your subject.
Bad subject line:
Good subject line:
Question About the Data Used in Thursday’s Sales Presentation
The greeting and introduction
You did it—you got that person to actually open your email. Now what?
They’ll turn their attention to the start of your message—which consists of your greeting and introduction.
When it comes to the actual greeting, the exact wording you use can vary depending on the circumstance for your particular message. Something like “Dear [Name]” is more appropriate in a formal setting, while a friendly “Hey [Name]” is great for instances when you can be more conversational and relaxed.
For what it’s worth, a study conducted by Boomerang found that using a simple “hey” yielded the highest response rate. Nobody knows your audience or recipient better than you, so use your best judgment here.
Either way, make sure to use that person’s first name at the beginning of your message so that it’s instantly apparent that it’s personalized—and not a bulk, junk email.
Moving onto the introduction, common courtesy dictates that you should begin with something short and friendly, such as, “I hope you’re doing well!”
If the situation warrants it, you can also follow that up with something a little more personal to reinforce your bond with that recipient.
However, the operative word with email introductions is short. Yes, it pays to be friendly and cordial when beginning your note. But, spiraling into anything too long-winded only clutters your message and wastes your recipient’s time.
Remember, when he or she will only read your email for about 11 seconds, you need to get to the meat and potatoes relatively quickly.
INSIDER TIP: It’s best to avoid asking questions in your introduction (especially rhetorical ones like, “What’s up?” or “How are you?”). You want your recipient to respond to the questions that actually matter—and not get confused or sidetracked with that inconsequential small talk.
Bad greeting and introduction:
What’s up? How’d that seminar go last week? I was bummed I couldn’t make it, but I was just too busy. Did you see Jason there? He said he was going to be there, but I wasn’t sure if he backed out at the last minute.
An introduction like this one is way too long-winded and asks far too many questions that you likely don’t need answers to. If you ask an important question later in your message, it could potentially be overshadowed by all of this small talk.
Good greeting and introduction:
Happy Monday! I hope last week’s seminar went well.
This is where the bulk of the magic happens—the body of your email. This is another place where clarity is key.
Don’t fall into the trap of packing eight different things into one email (as tempting as it might be). Your recipient will feel overwhelmed by all of those seemingly competitive requests—which means they’ll either push your email to the back burner or ignore it completely.
Instead, make it your goal to only include one main point per message.
Need to send the details and agenda for an upcoming meeting? Do that in one email with a relevant, clear subject line. If you also need to check in on the status of the graphics for a presentation? You can still do so—just in a separate email.
Segregating requests like that involves a little extra effort on your part. But, in the end, it will make things easier for both you and your recipient. You won’t get wires crossed, things won’t fall through the cracks, and you’ll be able to find those details later (because they’ll have a clear subject line—as opposed to a "catch-all" one!).
In addition to that major point, remember to also implement those important basics we discussed earlier—such as keeping the overall message short, breaking up large paragraphs, and implementing bulleted lists where possible.
Bad email body:
It’s been a while, so I figured I’d check in on the status of those graphs for the presentation we need to do for the board next week. Do you know when you’ll have those done? Kate mentioned you guys were aiming for this Wednesday, but I thought it’d be best to check with you in case that changed. Either way, can you let me know? Also, we need one additional graph created—I attached the details for that one.
Additionally, I’ve attached the agenda and notes for this Friday’s meeting. Sorry, it took me so long to pull those together—it’s been a crazy week. Go ahead and look those documents over and let me or Luke know if you have any questions about them. If so, you should probably get those over to us before Thursday so we have time to make any adjustments if necessary.
Even though the language is somewhat simple and straightforward, these long paragraphs are tough to wade through. This email format also includes two separate items—which would be better broken up into two different messages.
Good email body:
I’m checking in on the status of those graphs for the presentation to the board next week. Are you still planning to have those wrapped up this Wednesday?
Also, we need one additional graph created. This new graph should break down:
- The different marketing channels we used to acquire customers
- Which one was most effective in the fourth quarter
The data and more details about that graph are in the attached document.
The call to action
Every business email you send has a purpose, right? You need the recipient to take action—whether it’s answering a question, moving forward with a part of the project, sending you more information, or something else entirely.
Yet, far too often, we neglect to make it clear what we need our recipient to do. They read our messages and are left wondering, “OK… what now?”
Each and every email that you send should end with a direct call to action.
Not sure what that should be? Ask yourself this question: What do you need that person to do next? Take that answer and phrase it as a polite instruction—that way, there’s no confusion about what next steps should be.
This is another area where you don’t want to be vague—in fact, the more specific the better. Sentences like, “Let me know what you think!” or “Any questions?” don’t make it obvious that you’re anticipating that person to take action.
Adding a call to action will make your email that much stronger, but there’s one more element you shouldn’t skip: a deadline. In addition to letting that person know what she needs to do, also tell her when she needs to do it by.
Bad call to action:
Let me know if you have any questions.
Good call to action:
Please look at pages 14-16 of the report and let me know by EOD on Monday if you have any additions.
Finally, the signature is another element that’s often overlooked entirely—despite the fact that it’s included at the conclusion of every single one of your emails.
A signature in a business email should include the following:
- Your first and last name
- Your job title and company
- Your contact information
- A link to your company’s website or any other relevant pages
That can all be accomplished in only a few words. Yet, including those details in your signature ensures that your recipient has all of the information he or she could possibly need
Director of Sales, Google
The final steps
There you have it—all of the necessary elements of a solid business email. But, wait! Before you send, there’s one more thing you need to take care of: proofreading.
Read through your email (read it from the bottom to the top to force your brain to pay attention to each sentence) to catch any errors or typos. Additionally, check that any links you included actually work and confirm that necessary attachments are indeed attached to your message.
When you’ve done that? Press “send” and give yourself a hearty pat on the back—you just drastically improved your business email writing skills.
Keen to learn more? Sign up for our Business Writing course and become a workplace wordsmith in no time.
Want to learn more?
Take your soft skills to the next level with our comprehensive (and free) ebook!