I’ve been teaching English for 16 years, and there are very few courses I’ve taught which haven’t requested email writing practise – business or general English. Although most learners in the workplace who have some element of regular communication in English already write emails, most need reassurance that they’re doing a good job. I work in Germany and there are a few issues that arise time and again – Can I/ Should I really use small talk in emails? Are abbreviations and smileys unprofessional? How can I be more polite and diplomatic?
Every company and individual we work with is different, with different objectives and corporate cultures. Based on the (possibly) hundreds of times I’ve taught email writing, here are a few pieces of general advice that I give my business English learners to address their most frequent concerns:
- Emails are usually less formal than letters, so it’s fine to say ‘Hi’ or ‘Good morning’ and to end emails with ‘Best/kind regards’ rather than ‘Yours sincerely’.
- It’s increasingly common to use first names in international business, so don’t be afraid to do so!
- Abbreviations are fine – writing ‘we’re’ or ‘you’d’ saves time and reflects the more informal nature of emails, but doesn’t sound less professional.
- Prepare the subject line carefully- after the sender name it’s what the recipient looks at first. If it’s not clear what you want then they might not prioritise your message.
- Avoid including unnecessary information – emails are written, read and replied to quickly and should be easy to understand.
- Look for action – make sure you clearly state what you expect the recipient to do as a result of getting your email.
- Small talk helps build relationships but it doesn’t need to be overly personal. ‘How are things?’ suffices as a way of beginning the email before getting down to business.
- Don’t use too much jargon – always consider what the recipient already knows and don’t use terminology which may sound good to you, but which may cause confusion to the reader.
- Always proofread your emails, and not just to ensure your grammar is perfect – much more important is the tone you’ve used!
- Know when to call – emailing allows you to use online proofreading tools, but ultimately you may save time and effort by picking up the phone.
You can find a lesson plan here for teaching the basics of email writing, beginning with a general discussion on email style. It is based on an in-tray exercise for learners to identify standard email phrases, and then practical tasks for them to use the email language presented. I use this as my ultimate ‘go to’ lesson in business English classes and it can easily be followed up by extra writing support for professionals using their own workplace emails. Have fun!