A Story of Two Emails: Using best practices to construct an effective email

woman typing on laptopEmail. When it comes to communication it is the best and worst of tools. Most of the time it’s quick and easy. While we all know and accept that occasional typos will happen, there are a few ‘mistakes’ that are truly unforgivable.

As you might expect, online graduate students use email to correspond with their instructors, university staff, and peers. I think it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, “Accuracy and formality count in graduate school!” Therefore, let’s take a look at what you can do to make your emails as effective as possible.

Constructing the Message

Identify yourself.  Your name will display on the email, but keep in mind your instructor is working with many students, researchers, staff, and colleagues. For this reason, if you are contacting your instructor (or any other recipient) for the first time, or if it’s been a while since the last communication, it is helpful to include some information that explains who you are in relation to the recipient.

Consider referring to previous communication.  Most of our communication builds upon previous communication. It might be important to refer back to previous communication. This helps move the relationship and conversation forward. If the relationship is established and your email is about a new topic, ignore this suggestion and move on.

Use correct grammar and spelling.  We lose non-verbal face-to-face cues in computer-mediated communication, therefore we rely on the writing.  Make a good impression by using proper grammar and spelling. If in doubt, look it up. With all the great online resources available at our fingertips, it only takes a second.

State the problem and desired resolution.  I’ve seen too many emails that ramble on and on, and yet leave the reader with no idea of what’s being asked. Clearly state the problem, and clearly state your desired resolution.

Attention to Formatting and Design

Visual cues are important.  Making user-friendly design decisions is important because it gives the reader’s eyes cues on how to read the message. In terms of an email, this might just mean have having a space between paragraphs. Using ‘white or negative space’ matters. This is especially important for long emails. If you include a list, use bullets or another appropriate format. Also, use a standard font because no one wants to wade through highly embellished fonts. Our eyes and brain are trained to read basic fonts – this should be the easiest part.

Subject lines are important, too!  Just like a book title, subject lines give recipients insight into the content and actions needed from the email. We all hate clickbait, so don’t do it your recipient.

Emoji, colors, and graphics.  The use of emojis has significantly evolved in recent years. Emojis are almost never appropriate for professional emails. However, if you have established a solid professional or personal relationship you might be able to work in a smiley. But use caution if you do. It is important to remember that emails can be forwarded, and you always want to present yourself professionally to an audience. Colors can be very helpful to highlight or categorize information, but don’t use colors frivolously. Finally, avoid background and signature graphics.

Tone is Critical…

Convey the correct tone. I think this is the trickiest guideline. How is written tone defined? First, review your choice of words. Also, remember that USING ALL CAPS is the equivalent of yelling and that’s rarely, if ever, useful. Remember the audience, and remember it’s easy to needlessly escalate the tone behind the security of a screen. Before sending your email, ask yourself, “Will this be received as aggressive?” Hint: Don’t respond to emails when you are angry.

Before and After: A Story of Two Emails

Below is a before and after example of an email message. While pursuing the same goal, they are really two very different emails. Which one do you think will be more effective? Can see how employing best practices creates a professional impression of the sender?

Email window



Final thoughts on email etiquette

The way we communicate via email can greatly impact our personal, professional, and academic lives. Emails affect how others perceive us. When sending an email, it is important to remember:

  • Who we are communicating with,
  • What we are trying to communicate, and
  • Our goals from this communication.

Elizabeth Benz, Assistant Director of Student Support, ensures success for the online student population by managing the support specialist team and collaborating with university departments to provide support and resources for online students.

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One response to “A Story of Two Emails: Using best practices to construct an effective email”

  1. Mike Farr says:

    “The way we communicate via email can greatly impact our personal, professional, and academic lives. Emails affect how others perceive us. ”

    By Elizabeth Benz on October 28th, 2016 in Blog, For Students, Online Graduate School, Resources for Success

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