The art of communication is complex, and very much so with email. As one of the most popular communication channels in business, individuals are interested in getting their emails right. An average person sends and receives 121 business emails daily, making it even more critical that your email stands out from the herd.
Often, much can rest on the success of your professional emails because you’re usually trying to convince the recipient to take action. Optimizing your recipient’s chance to read and respond is essential for writers trying to craft an effective email.
The success of your email comes in three stages:
- The recipient opening your email
- The recipient reading your email
- The recipient responding to your email
For your recipient to pass smoothly through each stage, you need to make sure your email is structured and formatted like a typical formal email. There will be slight differences depending on whether your email will be sent inside or outside your organization since it’s typically more acceptable to be a little less formal with your colleagues.
What is a formal email?
A formal email is any email that is sent within a business context. For example, you might be a jobseeker approaching a potential employer, or you’re a small business owner following up on a networking opportunity.
Unlike personal emails, professional emails can frequently be directed at individuals you don’t know or don’t know well. You must pay attention when crafting these particular emails to avoid causing offense or ending up in the spam folder. This is where the subject line comes in particularly handy.
A formal email typically follows a predefined structure that encourages the recipient to take action. If you take care with structuring and formatting your formal email, you increase the chances of a response.
As people are on the receiving end of so many emails daily, your care and attention to your email – with the email subject line in particular – also dramatically increases the likelihood of them even opening your email in the first place. Following professional email etiquette means the recipient of the email will take you seriously and consider responding.
Formatting and structuring a formal email
Now we understand the importance of structuring and formatting your formal email, let’s think about the different elements that go into it.
Anatomy of a good email
1. Subject line
The first element of your formal email is the subject line. Here, you’re telling the recipient what the email is about and enticing them to open it. If you don’t hook your recipient with the descriptive subject line, you run the risk of them deleting it without reading it. At the same time, you don’t want to be too spammy with your subject line. “Open this now!” will not go down too well with your business contacts.
Once your recipient has opened your formal email, the first thing they’ll see is your opener. The aim here is to acknowledge your email in a friendly and professional way that conveys your personality. “Dear [recipient]” or “Hi [recipient] will do here. You can simply use their first name, as “Dear Mr Smith” might come across as overly formal these days. You’re not writing snail mail so using the first name is fine.
The body of your email is where you clearly convey the substance of your message. Why are you writing to this person? When you write formal emails, four to five sentences is enough to capture their interest and help them understand what you want from them. Any more and the recipient is likely to skim to the end without reading your formal email properly.
Remember, your goal is always to get your recipient to take action, whether that’s to read your CV or jump on a sales call. Keep the reader’s best interests in mind, and remember they have limited time and resources to deal with your email.
When writing a formal email you’ll want to close your message properly, potentially thanking the recipient for their time and including your name and details. Emails look more legitimate when they include a professional signature, which may include your job role, phone number and website details. Especially with cold emails, the recipient wants to know who you are and why they should reply to you.
Once you’ve got the anatomy right, you then have the formal email’s voice and tone. You’ll need to strike a friendly and professional tone while making sure the voice represents your personality, using the benefits of formal language. Unless you’re sending marketing emails, formal emails need to show that you are a serious person with a valid reason for contacting them.
You’ll need to use proper grammar and punctuation when formatting your formal email, to ensure that your email looks legitimate and sent in the right context. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors cast doubt on the validity of the sender and may make the recipient feel like you’re wasting their time.
Sending a formal email
Here’s what you need to do when sending a formal email on behalf of yourself or a company.
1. Use a professional email address
If you’re sending formal emails you can’t use the Hotmail address that you made when you were thirteen. You need a professional-looking email address that is ideally [first name][last name]@example.com. If you’re sending from a business then you should really think about creating a custom domain that reflects your company, since you’re using a company email address.
2. Send at an appropriate time of day
Most people read emails first thing in the morning, and if you can get your email to land in their inbox at this particular time you’ll maximize the chances of it being read. Some email software allows you to schedule in your message so you can compose and schedule at a time that is most convenient for you.
3. Give context to your email
Always think about your recipient when writing your email. They might have no idea who you are and what you do. If someone else has introduced you to this person, make sure you acknowledge this in the body of your email. Always be sensitive to the fact that you are imposing on the recipient and asking for the moment of their time.
4. Be careful with BCCs and CCs
Sometimes you might want to send a formal email and include someone else as a recipient, especially if they are the person who made the introduction. If you CC someone, you’re including them in the email and the main recipient is aware that they have seen the email. BCCing means the other recipients are invisible, so you should use this wisely, especially if the email contains sensitive information.
5. Use formatting elements to break up your email
Think about a blog post when you are writing your formal email. Blog posts use short paragraphs, bullet points, numbered lists, emphasis and italics to add interest to the copy. You can use these same elements in your formal email to increase the chances of it being read. These formatting elements make it much easier to skim read your email but still take in the overall meaning.
6. Include your call-to-action
What is the purpose of sending your formal email? Make it clear what you want the recipient to do after they have read your email. Is this scheduling a sales call? Is this to introduce you to someone who can help with your project? Whatever it is, make sure the call-to-action is stated in its own line, and consider highlighting it in bold so the recipient knows exactly what they have to do.
7. Use a formal signature
As we’ve already mentioned, using a formal signature gives vital context for who is sending the email and makes it look more legitimate. If they like, the recipient can learn more about you by clicking on your website or social media handles, making it more likely they will take time to craft a response. If you have a good email signature, it can encourage your recipient to take action and pay attention to what you are asking.
8. Run a spelling, grammar and sense check
Using a tool like Grammarly can really help with the readability of your formal email. It helps you catch common spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that would otherwise make your email harder to read.
Sense-checking your email is important, too. For example, making the cardinal error of getting the recipient’s name wrong is likely to cause it to end up in the trash folder. If your email is very high-stakes, it might make sense to get a second pair of eyes to look over your message and help you catch any errors.
9. Set up a reminder to follow-up
With the best will in the world, many recipients of your formal emails will not reply. In this case, you might want to send them a simple reminder to prompt them to respond. Do not send a reminder less than 24 hours after you have sent the original email, or this could come across as pushy. Remember that people are busy and they might have every intention of replying to your email when they have time.
Using templates for a formal email
We’ve got some common templates you can use for sending a formal email for yourself, or on behalf of a company.
Subject: Meet the new Customer Support Agent
Dear everyone, I would like to bring your attention to [First name] who is beginning her position as a Customer Support Agent. She will be offering technical support and guidance to our most valued users, and encouraging them to get the most out of our products and services. Please do introduce yourself to [First name] individually and welcome her to the company! Best wishes, [Your name] [Job title]
Subject: Re: Are you available to meet?
Hi [First name], I am just getting in touch to find out when you would be available to meet Ms. Smith? We’ve got dates on April 12 or April 13 and just wanted to check which would be better for your schedule? Thank you! [Your name] [Job title] [Company name]
Common email writing mistakes (and what to do instead)
There are some common mistakes that people make when writing formal emails and we’ll cover the main ones here.
1. Overuse of exclamation marks
It’s good to show enthusiasm but the recipient of your email may be put off if you use too many exclamation marks. Exclamation marks aren’t considered professional and may be better left to your personal emails. Exclamation marks can be distracting and make it look as though you are trying too hard.
What to do instead: Scan your drafts and figure out whether some or all of your exclamation points are unnecessary. Try to keep it to just one or two if you’re communicating with colleagues, and certainly don’t include double (or triple!) exclamation points. Let your message speak for itself.
2. Making your emails too lengthy
Emails that are too long are very off putting to potential recipients. They don’t have a lot of time to spend decoding long walls of text, which doesn’t guarantee that the end result will be worth it. In an ideal world, recipients want to be able to skim your emails in a few seconds and identify what exactly you want.
What to do instead: Reread your email and decide whether or not it’s too difficult to read. Distill it down into the most essential points with a clear call-to-action that means your recipient knows what is expected of them. Think about what would be most interesting to your recipient and only keep those points in.
3. Overly dry language
You don’t want to send formal emails that sound like they were written by a robot. Robotic emails have the downside of sounding like they were written for a mass audience and may just have your recipients sending them to the spam folder. You want your email to be formal and yet personal.
What to do instead: Obviously it’s a fine line to tread but you want to stay away from very long words and overly technical terms, at least at first. Talk to your recipient like a real human being and make sure your language reflects the personal nature of the interaction.
4. Repeating the same words
If you repeat too many words within the body copy of your email then you might be putting off potential recipients. These can sound like you haven’t proofread your email enough and are overly relying on the same language to get your point across. This kind of sloppy writing will deter your recipient from taking the email seriously.
What to do instead: Proofread your email and make sure your copy sounds natural and engaging. Getting a second pair of eyes on your email can also help, especially if it’s of a very important nature. Delete repeated words or find replacements so your recipient knows you took time in writing the email.
5. Being too vague
Emails that are too vague are guaranteed to lose the recipient’s interest. Often people don’t want to be too direct for fear of offending their audience, but being direct is a great way to show that you are confident. Email recipients want you to get to the point so they can gauge whether they should take action, or move on with their day.
What to do instead: Clearly state why you are writing to the recipient in the first place, and end with what you want from them. Don’t make them have to guess the purpose of your email, but instead convey your intention in direct language. This should all happen in the body copy of your email.
6. Erring on the casual side
Being too casual runs the risk of causing offense with the recipient of your email. They may think that you are not taking the correspondence seriously enough and send you off to the spam folder. While it’s important to avoid being too robotic and formal, being too casual shows that you don’t understand business relationships and how to approach somebody in a professional setting.
What to do instead: read through your email and identify where you might have included very casual elements such as emoticons. Decide whether you really need them in your email or whether they detract from your message.
Sending formal emails is an important way to communicate in the business world. Being able to format and structure these emails is critical for coming across in the right manner and maximizing the chances of a response. Associates won’t take us seriously if we don’t know how to format a formal email, and we might lose out on valuable business.
Email is not going away any time soon, so it’s worth learning how to do it right. Your work life will be easier, and you’ll be able to open up more opportunities for yourself. This is especially vital if you’re representing a company and need to preserve its reputation among clients and stakeholders.