Gary Littman

OWNER OF THE LANGUAGE HOUSE

Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Ten tips for better emails in English

1. Keep it Short and Simple (the KISS principle)

This is the best advice for writing professional emails in English. Forget those long wordy (French) phrases. Be brief. This doesn’t mean you have to be boring. You can be creative and add some personality, and still be succinct. Plain English is faster to write, faster to read and you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.

Which do you prefer?

A. I trust this clarifies the matter for you and look forward to hearing from you in due course in respect of your decision whether or not you intend to take out a loan.

B. Please contact me if you would like to take out a loan.

 2. The verb is Queen

In almost all emails the most important information relates to the verb (action): cancel, postpone, resend, order, check, recommend, deliver, invite, send, calculate, find...

People want to know “what do you need from me?” Explain this quickly. The world of work is about action (doing things) and action is all about verbs. The verb is Queen in your emails. But you don’t need to sound like a dictator. Remember what your mother taught you. You should always say…

3. Please and thank you

You can easily soften the content with a liberal usage of politesse (so you sound more like a benign leader rather than a dictator). If the email is for a colleague or client you deal with regularly it is important to get straight to the point:

Please send me a copy…

Please contact John in marketing…

Please organise a meeting with…

If it is the first contact or needs to be slightly more formal, change the wording to:

Could/Can you please send me…

Could/Can you please cancel our order…

Could/Can you please contact our marketing department…

The use of please softens any awkward language that may sound a bit direct or rude. How many times have you received a cold or rude email? A please or two in the right places can change the tone completely.

I often reply to emails from clients with: Thank you for your email or Thank you for contacting The Language House. This polite phrase thanks them for selecting my company, instead of one of my competitors, and for taking the time and energy to write. I think this is something worth thanking clients for.

 4. Subject-Verb-Object

Generally, humans understand information easily if it is given in the following order: Subject-Verb-Object. This is the natural word order of an English sentence.

If you have a complex sentence that’s giving you (and therefore your future reader) trouble, the simplest way to fix it is to rewrite it in a subject-verb-object format. This minimises the confusion factor.

 A. If any member of the board retires, the company, at the discretion of the board, and after notice from the chairman of the board to all the members of the board at least 30 days before executing this option, may buy, and the retiring member must sell, the member's interest in the company.

B. The company may buy a retiring member's interest.

 A. At this point in time we can't ascertain the reason as to why the door was left open

B. We don't know why the door was left open.

 When making a request use a simple sentence.

A. I don’t know what your schedule looks like, but if you’re interested and available, I would really appreciate the chance to have lunch with you sometime–say, next week?

B. Can we have lunch next week?

A request presented in a short, simple sentence won’t to be overlooked.

5. Signing-on and off

Dear and Hello are fine for most emails. Dear is a little more formal.

Remember: Always use the name of your recipient if you know it… even if you haven’t had any contact with them.

The correct title for a woman named Sue Johnson is Ms. eg. Dear Ms Johnson.

Never write: Dear Mr Garry. It is either Dear Mr Littman or Dear Garry

If you don’t know who you are writing to, use Dear Sir/Madam. Be careful, these impersonal emails often end up in the spam box or are deleted immediately.

Don’t start your email with How are you? You can, if you wish, use the expression I hope you are well or I hope you are keeping well.

Don’t (please) finish an email with the sugary and over-used phrase: Have a nice day.

Sign off with Yours sincerely for a formal email and Kind regards/Best regards or Thank you for less formal emails.

 6. When can I change from Dear Ms Johnson to Dear Sue

Formality: To know when to change from the formal family name to the less formal first name is often difficult for non-English speakers.  Unfortunately there are no rules. But here are a few guidelines:

If your recipient addresses you by your first name it is generally a sign that you can do the same.

Mirror the style of your recipient. If his or her style is friendly and informal, keep your emails relatively informal.

When a prospective client turns into an actual client it is often the right time to make the written relationship less formal.

If you use first names in your spoken communication continue this in your email..

7. Subject/title

Use the subject line to help your reader focus on the content of your email. The quicker your reader can focus on the subject the more effective he or she will be in dealing with your request.

8. The verb is Queen (part 2): Find the strong verbs

Sometimes the verbs are hidden among verb-noun combinations. It is your job to reveal the strong verb. Here are some examples below:

We need to make an improvement

We need to improve

We made an application…                                                 

We applied…

We had a discussion about the matter.                                

We discussed the matter.

9. Simple terms for simple understanding

Many phrases or words are totally unnecessary and can be deleted and many can be simplified. Be active and edit your email. Cut and slash at them. Rewrite. Use your delete button like a sword and kill off unnecessary phrases like these below:

  • all things being equal
  • all things considered
  • as a matter of fact
  • as far as I am concerned – I think
  • at the end of the day
  • at the present time - now
  • due to the fact that - because
  • for all intents and purposes
  • for the most part - generally
  • for the purpose of
  • in a manner of speaking
  • in my opinion – I think
  • in the event of - if
  • in the final analysis
  • it seems that
  • the point that I am trying to make
  • what I am trying to say
  • what I want to make clear

 10. Keep your audience in mind from start to finish

When you have finished your email, imagine you are the recipient. Is it clear? Do you know what you have to do? Is all the information there? Can you cut out some unnecessary words or phrases? Check the spelling of names, the grammar and tenses. Try and minimise those ‘OH NO’ moments when your eyes and finger are perfectly synchronised: the former on a mistake and the latter on the send key.

The following paragraph below contains 70 words. Can you rewrite/cut it down to 35 words or less?

This document is for the purpose of giving the reader a detailed explanation of the reservation process. It describes the activities we currently do in the majority of instances on a daily and weekly basis. In order to provide an introduction to the process for employees who work on a temporary basis, we also have prepared an overview, which describes the highlights of the reservation process in just two pages.

You can send your response to me: garry@tlh.ch:

If you have any advice or questions, please add your comments below.

 

 

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