In Kalidasa’s Meghdoot, an exiled yaksha (demigod) implores a cloud to take his epistle of love to his beloved in the Himalayas. Today, with countless messages hurtling past the clouds, on to satellites and back to the earth, the yaksha wouldn’t have to worry about dark clouds and rain and wild elephants. He would email his sweetheart.
Most users approach email casually, treating it as an extension of a chat screen. This is partly true if the sender and receiver are ‘buddies’. But if you are using email for business communication, you should wake up to the importance of little things that can influence the result of your transaction.
The first tip that you get from experts is usually that you should write a meaningful subject line. Ideally, the subject line should contain a crisp summary of the message. That will provide a context and make the reader receptive to the content that follows. It can serve as a thread to link all messages on the same subject.
The body of the message must be focused. Your correspondent will most likely be a busy person. If he or she encounters rambling or foggy writing, he or she will lose interest. Moreover, not many people read through the message right till the end. The important thing, therefore, is to make sure that your message reaches them in the opening lines on the screen.
Avoid putting totally disparate items into one message. Send separate messages if the items are different.
Executives occupying higher positions will look for professionalism in communication. Use standard spelling and grammar. Run the spell and grammar checks if only to spot typos that you may have missed. Typing in all capitals is called flaming, equivalent to shouting. Likewise, typing in small letters can also cast a slur on your professionalism. Avoid both.
Use the active voice: It gives shorter sentences and stresses action. Simple sentences are the best, with an occasional complex sentence. No sentence should be so complex as to require a second reading.
There are no rules about the length of your email message. There is something to be said for the recommendation that a single message should ideally be contained in one frame, on one screen. If the reader has to scroll down two or three pages, he may put off reading the message. Discipline yourself about the length of your message, and then it will naturally be concise and focused.
Formality in style is of supreme importance. You want to get on with the business, and that should be reflected in your tone. Observe the right degree of formality in addressing the respondent. Use “Mr” or “Ms”, and “Mrs” if the recipient prefers that.
Abbreviations such as “btw” (by the way), “asap” (as soon as possible) and “imho” (in my humble opinion), and smileys are inappropriate in business communication.
One of the most useful features of email is the facility to send attachments. But you need to exercise caution in sending them. Attachments can take time to download, making the reader wait: If it looks like an eternity, he may fly into a “web rage”. Also, attachments take up space in the recipient’s computer. Send only those files that the recipient has to work upon or put up for discussion or revise. If you only want to pass on information, cut and paste sections of the file into the body of your message.
If your email ID is different from your own name, it will be a good idea to have a signature entry with your name and position in the company. You should own up responsibility for what you are writing. Do not write anything you would not say in public. There is nothing like total privacy in email communication.
This is where you need to use a disclaimer with every message. If someone in your company sends messages that are racist or otherwise offensive, the company has to answer for it. The disclaimer can reduce the company’s risk, if it includes a statement that the employees of the company have been instructed not to send offensive material in their messages. Your company should frame an email policy and train the employees to abide by the guidelines laid down. By doing this, who knows, you may be avoiding costly defamation suits.
The header of the email screen has buttons for CC and BCC. When you use CC, the name of every recipient will be listed in your message. Some may be embarrassed, even annoyed, to see their name listed with 20 others, and to have their email address circulated without their permission. Here is where you can use the BCC field. The recipient will not know who the other recipients are. There is no invasion of privacy.
Many of the rules of good paper communication apply to email, too. You have to be correct, complete, concise and courteous. The potential of email in business is still unfolding—be there to exploit it.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org