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Summer School 2013: How to Write Effective Professional Email

TopicDate
Using "To:", "CC:", and "BCC:" June 10, 2013
Subject Lines June 18, 2013
Choosing the Right Greeting June 24, 2013
Message Content July 1, 2013
Closings July 8, 2013
"Reply" and "Reply all" July 15, 2013
Everthing Else July 30, 2013

June 10: Using "To:", "CC:", and "BCC:"

The ability to write effective professional e-mail is an important skill; mastering it will endear you to those who receive your messages. Carefully constructed e-mail saves recipients' time, and time is valuable. This summer, we will discuss the various components of professional e-mail and how to use (and not use) them.

Let's begin by discussing "To:", "Cc:", and "Bcc:". If you send a message "To:" someone, you are indicating that you intend for that person to act or you are providing him/her with information. In contrast, individuals named in the "Cc:" or "carbon copy" line are just being kept in the loop. You have no expectation that they will take action. Finally, "Bcc:" or "blind copying" sends a message to individuals without the knowledge of the other recipients. One of the few respectable reasons for using "Bcc:" is to send a message to a large number of recipients. Since the e-mail addresses of all the recipients are hidden, each recipient can see the message without have to scroll through a long address list. In addition, individual e-mail addresses remain private rather than being shared with the entire group.

An example of using "Cc:" occurs frequently in the OITE. A trainee will ask me for a copy of Dr. Milgram's slides. I send the request to Dr. Milgram and copy the trainee so the trainee knows the request has been forwarded. When Dr. Milgram sends the slides off to the student, she copies me. I now know the request has been handled.

Sometimes students want information but don't know which of four people in the OITE will be able to provide it. If you are in this situation, DO NOT send four independent e-mails! Send one e-mail with all four individuals included in the "To:" line. The first person who is able to answer will copy all the rest, eliminating the need for them to respond. Trust me: failure to follow this recommendation will NOT make you friends in the OITE.

June 18: Subject Lines

A good subject line will benefit both you (the message author) and the recipient.  It will help ensure that you get what you want, namely, that the message is opened and the recipient takes the action you want or reads the information you are sending.  It will also help you find the e-mail at a later date.  Finally, a good subject line will help the recipient decide whether to open the e-mail or not and help him/her to find it again in the future. The bottom line: you should ALWAYS include a subject line!

Guidelines for creating effective subject lines:

  • Keep them short.
  • Put the important information at the beginning.
  • Make the point of each specific e-mail clear. For example, if you were working on a large conference, you would not want to use "Conference" as the subject line for all messages. It would be far better to use subjects like "Conference agenda", "Conference application form", "Conference speakers", etc.
  • Change the subject line when the topic of an e-mail discussion string changes.
  • Begin a new e-mail string when the old one grows to an unwieldy size.

Homework

Which of the following subject lines is better?

  • Reagent request
  • Reagent request: cardiolipin

Are the following acceptable subject lines?

  • Please approve SLM spectrophotometer purchase.
  • Reminder: Summer events for June 21 and 22
  • Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success
  • AWIS
  • Slides from the AWIS Hershey Career Forum (AWIS is the Association for Women in Science; NOTE: this information is not part of the subject line)

June 24: Choosing the Right Greeting

E-mail messages have to begin somewhere. Generally, they start with a greeting. Some of the choices are

  • Dear Dr. Sokolove:
  • Dear Dr. Sokolove,
  •  Dear Ms. Sokolove,
  • Dear Pat,
  • Hi, Brenda.
  • Good morning, all!
  • Greetings!
  • To Whom It May Concern:

The question is: how are these different, and how do you decide which to use? The first two differ only in that the first ends with a colon, while the second ends with a comma. The colon is the more formal punctuation mark. You would use a greeting like this for a serious business message.

The greeting choice that probably makes the most difference is between "Dear Dr. Sokolove" and "Dear Ms. Sokolove". When you are writing to someone at the NIH or in a university setting, and you don't know whether that individual has a doctoral degree, ALWAYS go with "Dear Dr. Sokolove". Calling someone "Ms." when she holds an MD or PhD is likely to raise hackles. In contrast, erring in the opposite direction can be seen as flattering.

Using "Dr." also saves you from having to determine an individual's gender from his/her first name. But, if you MUST use a gender-specific greeting like "Ms." or "Mr." you can go to one of several databases for help determining which is more likely correct. Try this at the Name DB (http://incompetech.com/named) or Namepedia, the Name Database (http://www.namepedia.org/en/firstname/.

(Perhaps this is also a good time to mention that you should be certain you can spell the last name of the individual to whom the message is being sent! (I am really unhappy when I receive an e-mail that begins "Dear Ms. Sokolov"! The only worse greeting is "Dear Mr. Sokolov".)

Now, how do you know whether it would be OK to address a faculty member or NIH investigator by his or her first name? There are two signals: (1) the individual asks you to use his/her first name and (2) the individual signs an e-mail to you using his/her first name. Either of these gives you license to address the person by first name from then on.

The next three greetings ("Hi!", "Good morning!" and "Greetings!") are all significantly less formal. You might use them with a friend or a coworker you know well. Finally, there's "To Whom It May Concern". It is ALWAYS better to find the actual name of an individual rather than use this general greeting. Use it only as a last resort.

July 1: Message Content

Hopefully your carefully crafted subject line convinced the recipient of your e-mail message to open it rather that clicking "delete".  Now you need to ensure that your message is sufficiently clear that it will elicit the action you want.  Here are some useful suggestions:

  • Keep the message SHORT and put the most important information in the first sentence. Why? Because too many people will be like me and only read the first sentence.
  • But, after you write the message, consider going back and inserting something pleasant just before it, something like "I hope your week is going well." Some people respond better if you make polite contact before getting down to business.
  • Address only one important issue per e-mail.
  • What if you must discuss multiple important issues in a single e-mail? Your job then becomes ensuring that readers keep reading until they have taken in all the points. You can do this by (1) indicating the number of issues in the subject line and (2) using bullets or a numbered list to keep the reader reading.

July 8: Closings

Now that you have communicated your message clearly and succinctly, that is, using the fewest words possible, it's time to end the e-mail. Again, you should pay attention to which of the possible closings is most appropriate. Here are some possibilities:

  • Sincerely,
  • Thank you in advance.
  • Best regards,
  • Kind regards,
  • Warm regards,
  • Fondly,
  • Enjoy your weekend!
  • Ciao!
  • Cheers!

"Sincerely" and "Thank you in advance" are particularly business-like, as is "Best regards". You can use them with recipients you don't know personally. I like to use the "Thank you" version when I have asked the recipient to do something.

The next three greetings, "Kind regards", "Warm regards", and "Fondly", suggest increasing amounts of personally positive feelings towards the recipient. You will need to consider your relationship and titrate just how far you are willing to go AND what the recipient will be expecting to hear.

The last three closings are far less formal. They suggest that you are writing to a friend. I particularly like to use "Cheers!" to close messages to old boyfriends. (Yes, I have them, and they are definitely old!) It's a good, friendly, positive closing that doesn't imply anything romantic.

July 15:  "Reply" and "Reply all"

Have you ever been included on one of those listserv messages that is of no interest to you whatsoever but that seems to take on a life of its own? Other members of the listserv keep hitting the "reply all" button and spamming everyone with their opinions.  You do not want to be one of those thoughtless individuals!

How can you decide whether your reply should go to the entire list or just to the author of the original message?  Here are some things to consider:

  • What was the sender trying to accomplish?
  • What do YOU want to accomplish with your reply?
  • HOW CAN YOU AVOID WASTING THE TIME OF OTHERS? (The last of these may be the most important.)

Consider this e-mail:

From: Office Leader (NIH/OD)[E]
To: List OITE-STAFF
Subject: Extra rosemary

We have to trim our plants, and I will be bringing in the cuttings tomorrow.  Please let me know if you are interested.

Who needs to know if you would like a handful of rosemary cuttings?  ONLY the office leader!  Replying to all would be a mistake.

But what about this:

From: Dr. Investigator (NIH/NINDS)[E]
To: Dr. Expert, Dr. Bigger Expert, Dr. Biggest Expert
Subject: Ethics question

Gang,

I have a student here in big trouble.  Is it ethically appropriate for me to  ...?

What is Dr. Investigator trying to do?  Perhaps, initiate a conversation.  In that case, "reply all" might be appropriate.  However, I am going to guess that Dr. Biggest Expert is more likely to hit "reply all" and share his/her wisdom that Dr. Expert.  Also, if Dr. Biggest Expert responds quickly, definitively, and (from the perspective of the other two) correctly, perhaps they will choose not to "reply all" or perhaps not to reply at all.

In other words, the situation is not always crystal clear.  But try hard to avoid hitting "reply all" when doing so will only clog inboxes.

July 30: Everything Else

Not every important thought relating to professional e-mail fits neatly into a category.  So here are all the other things you should consider when crafting your messages.

  • Be careful when naming attachments. Document names should be both professional and meaningful.
  • Reserve that cute red "High Importance" exclamation point for messages that truly are important.
  • Don't send unnecessary e-mail.
  • Respond quickly! If you will need some time to collect the information being requested, send an immediate e-mail indicating when the sender can expect to receive the complete response.
  • Make certain your signature block is professional. Consider omitting uplifting statements. Not everyone may agree with your sentiments.
  • Do not write in all capital letters LIKE THIS. Caps are the e-mail equivalent of screaming.
  • Avoid red text. Some folks are colorblind. Furthermore, red suggests anger.
  • Skip the fancy backgrounds.

Now, go ahead and create professional e-mail that will make you (and us) proud!

Note added in September 2016: currently, "email" is preferred over the older "e-mail".