You may think you don’t need to learn how to write a business email (or Slack message, or Skype). After all, you’ve probably been sending business emails for years, perhaps since you began working.

During this unusual time in history in which everyone is working virtually, learning how to write a business email is essential. Not just any email, but one that considers emotion and tone.

How to Write a Business Email

I’m older than most of you reading this, and I didn’t begin my career writing emails. In fact, email didn’t exist when I started my first full-time job.

Instead, when necessary, communications were typed in a specific format called a memo. These formal communications followed a very traditional format and tone; and, because they were typed (on an IBM Selectric, no less), each one was crafted with diligence and precision.

Emails, on the other hand, can be dashed off as quickly as one can type. Skype and Slack messages pose even great problems because they are often typed as part of the ebb and flow of a conversation.

These conversations taking place in cyberspace using pixels and emojis often lack the nuances of actual in-person conversations. Lacking physical expressions, gestures, and the subtle cues people give each other during the give-and-take of conversations, arguments, and meetings, they can be misunderstood.

Mind Your Tone! Emotional Mistakes Made in Writing

Have you ever been in an email war of words? It usually starts when one person mistakenly “reads” into the tone of the initial email. What began as an innocent attempt at communication ends up in a string of ever-increasing angry emails that may end up as a phone call or virtual meeting to straighten things out.

What leads to such email wars? Emotional mistakes in tone.

What is tone in writing?

Tone, according to the literary definition, is the attitude of the writer towards his or her subject.

Word choice conveys a great deal of the tone in any piece of literature, including instant messages, emails, and other communications.

Ritchie Blackmore, guitarist of the rock band Deep Purple, said something in a documentary on the making of their (awesome) album Machine Head (yes huge Purple fan here) that underscores the importance of tone.

“When things are positive, the management always says ‘we’ as in ‘We’re going up the charts!’ But if something is negative, it’s you: ‘You’re going down the charts.'”

Ritchie is sensitive to tone. The choice of management’s words — we verus you — is a perfect illustration of tone. Sensitivity to tone enables him to read instantly into the situation. He knows that if the record company sends a message such as “Can you talk?” it’s probably something unpleasant whereas “We would like to talk to you” it may be positive.

Words Matter

Your choice of words matters a great deal when crafting email messages. As you’re writing your emails, your brain chooses words seemingly on its own. But your intuitive understanding of the connotation of each words – it’s unspoken bias or meaning – helps you choose the “right” words to convey what you truly feel.

Learning How to Write a Business Email – 5 Steps to Avoid Miscommunication

Without the nuance of spoken language, emails can be construed as passive-aggressive. “Let’s talk” can start an email war of words. “I’m not clear about the direction of the program – can we speak at 1 o’clock and go over the details?” is a much better way of asking for the same conversation.

Let’s avoid those war of words and look at 5 steps to avoid miscommunication when you write a business email.

  1. Pause before you hit send, especially when angry or upset. Your brain is merrily tootling along choosing words as your fingers fly across the keyboard. You may think that your message is neutral when you want to reach through the monitor and throttle a coworker, but your brain’s circumventing your common sense and selects a few choice hot button words sure to begin the dreaded war or words. Pausing before you hit send, rereading messages, and changing hot button phrases can defuse problems before they start.
  2. Watch out for typos. A typo may be simply that – a typo – or it can convey that you are so angry your fingers are flying over the keyboard. It can also make your communications appear rushed and unprofessional. While typos are common in instant messages and text, often due to the smaller keyboards and quick nature of the responses, eliminate typos from emails to avoid sending unintended messages about your urgency or tone. A program such as Grammarly, which can check all types of written communications including social media messages, instant messages, and emails, can highlight typos for correction on screen.
  3. Walk away from the computer. Did something set you off? Walk away from the computer and let the message cool. We’re all working in a strange environment now with kids screaming in the background, dogs barking, and the stress-relieving afternoon Starbucks run a thing of the past. As we learn how to navigate the new work from home environment in which kids need the computer, spouses need quiet to close a deal, and you need the video for a conference call, it’s no wonder that little things trigger emotions. Walking away and pausing before answering can save a world of hurt.
  4. Don’t use emoticons. The Harvard Business Review (of all places) accepts the inevitable use of emoticons. I don’t mind them in Skype or Slack messages – I was famous for using my “Queen” emoticon when making editorial pronouncements at one job – but using too many in a formal email looks amateurish and unprofessional. It’s a smart idea to avoid emoticons, especially in an email.
  5. Use email appropriately. Email is best for conveying lengthier thoughts. Use instant messenger for quick questions. In other words, don’t hit “Respond All” and say “Thank you” or “Yes.”

Better Emails, Easier Communications

If you’re struggling with how to write a business email, and you’re uncomfortable writing longer emails, think about how you can overcome your discomfort. What’s holding you back?

Right now, we’re all struggling to work virtually, juggling Slack, Skype, text, and email messages. But let’s face it: email is also an important aspect of all workplace communications, pandemic or no pandemic. Learning how to write effective business emails is an important skill everyone should master.

(c) by Jeanne Grunert – “the Marketing Writer” at Seven Oaks Consulting, a content marketing writing agency in Prospect, Virginia.