E-mail the right way (OR: Feb. 2010)

by Andrew Kantor
Virginia Association of REALTORS

Like it or not, e-mail is the most common form of electronic communication today. Chances are it’s how you connect with most of your clients, your peers, your broker, or your agents. (And chances are, if you’re going to comment about this article, you’re going to do it by e-mail.)

That’s why you ought to do it right.

Yes, Virginia, there is a right way to do e-mail. There are ways to make your messages easy on the eyes and minds of your recipients, to make your message as clear as possible, and to maintain your professional look.

Here are 11 tips to do just that. Many of you already do these things, but it’s also obvious that there are a lot of people who don’t. They may not realize how it looks on the receiving end, or they may just not think about it–or they may think, “That’s just the way it is.”

Well, it ain’t. They’re all important, and they’re all easy–and your recipients will thank you for taking the time.

Content is king

Use a smart subject. The subject is the first thing people see, so make it count. Obviously it should give some idea of what the message is about, but it should also make it clear whether it’s just some information or whether there’s an action necessary.

  1. Really Bad: Smith project
  2. Bad: Smith project cost changes
  3. Good: Need your approval for Smith project cost changes

Many, many people use those “Really Bad” subjects, maybe because they’re thinking of it as a title, not a subject. There’s a huge difference. Titles are meant to be catchy (“War and Peace”), subjects are meant to deliver information. Don’t mix them up.

Clean that subject. When a message is a reply, the subject gets a “Re:” added. No problem; we’ve all seen it. But if a message goes back and forth a while–or gets forwarded outside the original recipient group–some e-mail software is not smart enough to keep the subject manageable. You end up with a subject of “Re: Re: Re: Fwd: Re: smith project.”

So if you’re about to send such a message, do everyone a favor and trim the subject line. Either pare it to a single “Re:” or, better, change the subject completely. Chances are, after all those backs-and-forths, a new subject will make more sense anyway.

Sign your messages completely. Most e-mail software lets you add a signature–your “sig”–to the bottom of your messages. If you aren’t doing that, start. And make sure that signature includes your contact information clearly labeled. (Yes, using “P:” for a phone number and “F:” for a fax is cute, but why confuse the issue?)

Put that sig on all your outgoing messages, including replies. That makes it easy for someone to reach you, because they can open any message you’ve sent knowing your phone number is there.

And consider the legal angle. If the message has anything that could be perceived as advertising, you should include some important disclosures: Your name, your firm’s name, the city and state of the office you work from, and the jurisdiction(s) where you hold a license.

Because of all that, you shouldn’t add much more. Your signature is not the place for a huge ad for your company, or to tout the awards you’ve won. If you end up exchanging several messages, it gets tiring seeing a huge block of text repeated over and over.

That said, it’s also a good idea to remove nested signatures. If you’re having an e-mail conversation with someone and that means your sig is appearing multiple times in a message, clean it up. Once is plenty.

Put action items and other important info at the top. If you need something done, say so immediately, then explain the details. Even skimmers will read the first part of a message. If you bury a phrase like “…make sure to send me those papers…”somewhere below, it’s easy to miss.

If you think it’s too abrupt to start a message with “I need you to send me some documents,” add a short pleasantry, but that’s it: “Hey, John, hope you’re doing well. I need you to send me some documents…”

If your recipient wants a surprise ending, she’ll go see “The Sixth Sense.”

Use English. It’s about professionalism. Sure, if it’s an urgent message to a colleague you can forego the niceties, but you should get in the habit of treating every message like it’s going to someone important. Because it is.

Your grammar, spelling, and style don’t have to be English-teacher perfect, but take a moment or two to at least clean it up. You know, capitalize the first letter of a sentence, use decent punctuation, check for spelling mistakes, and so on. It may be a small thing, but it cultivates the impression (hopefully accurate) that you’re thorough and that you consider your recipient important. Which you do.

Don’t use stationery. Ever. Background images of leaves, balloons, butterflies, stripes–forget it. Forget it all. It’s distracting, it’s annoying, and it may not display properly in all your recipient’s mailboxes. There is no good use for anything other than a white background in typical business correspondence.

The obvious exception: Newsletters. If you or your company sends out an electronic newsletter, then sure, go to town. Just be sure to check the result on a variety of e-mail software (Outlook, Windows Mail, Gmail, etc.) to be sure it looks the way you intend.

Keep your fonts simple. Your messages should be composed in one of five typefaces: Times New Roman, Arial, Georgia, Tahoma, Verdana. Period. Those are sometimes called “core Web fonts,” and they’re guaranteed to be available to anyone you send a message to. So pick one and use it–no scripts, or slab-serifs, or other nonsense. And under no circumstances should you ever, ever use Comic Sans if you’re over the age of eight.

On a similar note, you can use any color you want, as long as it’s black. Or blue. If you’re in third grade, then send all the purple and green you want. Otherwise, this is business correspondence, and–unless you’re working for the Cincinnati Bengals–it’s no place for orange text.

Stick to one typeface. Your e-mail messages shouldn’t switch from one font to another, willy-nilly. You picked one and you need to stick with it. It’s less distracting, and there are only a few, very limited cases when you need to use more.

Ah, but what if you paste something into a message from a Web page, a document, or another e-mail? Sometimes that will retain the formatting from wherever you got it.

So clean it up; it’s simple. You just need to paste the text into Notepad first, then copy it out and paste it into your message. Notepad strips out all the formatting, so whatever you paste will look like the rest of your message and not sport a jarring change of typeface.

Reduce nested quotes. When a message goes back and forth, with  each person adding a comment, the original messages end up below those comments (or in some cases, above). So you could have a one-line message (“Sounds good to me”) followed by 30 lines of previous exchanges. Messy.

So trim it down–delete any of the old conversation that is no longer necessary, so your recipient doesn’t have to see all the flotsam. Or jetsam.

This is especially useful if you’re sending to someone using a Blackberry or other PDA to receive messages. That small screen can easily fill with nested quotes and signatures–so take ‘em out.

Finally, one suggestion that’s not about the content of your mail: Don’t send immediately. Many e-mail programs give you an option to hold an outgoing message until the next time you check your mail. So if you’re set up to check every five minutes, it could be up to five minutes before your message goes out. Till then, it’s in the Outbox. This gives you a chance to make any lastminute changes–think of it as a cooling off period. And we all need those once in a while.