And a reminder: You cannot write „e-mail“ without „mail.“ How we create better e-mails in memory of the art of writing letters.
The kid takes the mailbox key. What a sensation. If aliens had landed in my backyard, my mother couldn’t have been more surprised. I may have been 13, 14, and like any teenager, I had the deep impression that the world would revolve around me. I couldn’t be bothered with mundane matters like bringing out minor keys or getting the mail. So why should I suddenly get the mailbox key?
Because I had a pen pal. Julie from France, living in a suburb of Paris. What a time that was! Writing letters, handwritten – when I think back on it, that time now seems like an element in Downtown Abbey. Fascinating, as if from an earlier era, fallen out of time and yet endlessly beautiful. In fact, I wrote letters back then as a teenager. Every single word. Mistakes would be corrected using white masking pencils. Every word an expression of a thought achievement, every sentence well thought out – and of course, I thought well about how and what I write. After all, I wanted to impress a young lady (a French girl, whoa!) with my then very modest knowledge of her native language. And what a wonderful feeling it was to go to the mailbox as a young person, and actually receive a letter that another (especially female!) person wrote to me.
And today? E-Mails. E-Mails, hundreds, short, long, profane, meaningful, many with spelling mistakes, written fleetingly in the stress of everyday life. Without much care, without much thinking, without the care, we used to put into a letter. What a terrible time, this digital age. At least for old people like me (41) who still remember what it was like to write and receive a letter.
And what a great time for all those who want to rediscover e-mail writing as a reminder of the time of writing letters. Because whoever has this mindset can stand out.
Seize this chance.
When I started out as a lawyer in 2006, e-mails were, of course, already widespread. But it was just as common to write letters to clients. Correspondence from the court was forwarded by letter and explained. Drafts of expert opinions were sent with a short cover letter. In fact, I often wrote letters in which I informed the clients in general about the legal situation, costs or the status of the proceedings.
Letters have a significant advantage: they are printed on paper and are often read meticulously for spelling and formalities. Because what we print out, what we can touch usually creates the need for it to look good. That nothing taints it. The care that has been put into the creation of a letter should be apparent to the recipient as soon as he or she sees it. The frame is set – perfect and worthy of this particular content. The formally unobjectionable letter evokes the feeling that the author had taken all the care and effort that the recipient of this critical message deserves.
And today? It has become rare for me to write another letter to a client – often, these are just invoices or very formal notes confirming or terminating or canceling an assignment. Everything else is sent by e-mail, even incoming mail from the court. An e-mail has become the medium par excellence for correspondence with clients. The advantages are clear: it is fast, it is virtually free, no stationery is wasted if a small error is found after printing and then everything has to be printed again. Also, clients expect e-mails – because it has to be fast for them too, they can forward the e-mail as they wish and find it in their inbox even years later.
But at the same time, the art of formally designing the message is also lost through e-mails, especially among young colleagues. Because the medium is fast, people also write quickly and lovelessly. Spelling mistakes, lack of punctuation, formal errors are not an integral part of the message; the content of the e-Mails is meaningless, confusing or in the worst case even wrong. The result: frustration with the customer. The trouble with the supervisor. No successful work.
How do I avoid this? In this article, I would like to give you a simple message: Write an e-mail with the same care you would write a letter. That is my claim to a good e-mail.
The art of writing letters
E-mails are digital letters. So in a professional context, we should treat them as such. That means they don’t contain spelling mistakes, grammar and punctuation are correct. After all, nobody would put a letter that looks like a failed dictation from school in an envelope and send it out. Programs like Outlook have a spell checker that helps us. There is no reason not to set Outlook so that an e-mail may only be sent after this check (that’s the way it is with me – this forces me to check!).
Then you have to make sure that character size and spacing are consistent. The recipient will notice immediately if Times New Roman is used in the first paragraph, Arial in the next, and the font sizes change between 10 and 12. This seems sloppy – would you send a letter with so much formal clutter? No, because you would already see in the printout that you have a mistake in the layout.
Another mistake is different colors in an e-mail. These can be caused by copy and paste, often especially when we don’t look at it properly. Sometimes we take over foreign text in black writing, but write in dark blue ourselves. The reader of the e-mail often notices this faster than the author.
The importance of the signature
Each e-mail should contain a signature. Even if you have frequent contact with the customer, so he has your data safe, a signature should be added. On the one hand, this corresponds to the mindset „like a letter“, where the recipient always receives the full letterhead. On the other hand: how often have you searched for a contact’s phone number in your Outlook? How often was there no signature in the last e-mail from this contact? Exactly. Whoever attaches his signature is always easy to reach.
The subject of the e-mail
Before I go into the content of good e-mails in further contributions, I would like to take a look at the subject. Even though it already has a reference to content, it is primarily of a formal nature. It aptly describes the context of the letter – or even the e-mail.
Let us take a step back with a bitter realization: We all get too many e-mails. Especially executives are flooded with them. From Monday to Friday, I receive about 1,000 e-mails. Every week. When we have this insight, we immediately know what is essential for a right subject: clarity. I should already know what it’s about when I read the head line – and whether I need to react. This can and should be made clear in the subject line.
An example: The court sends a note to me as a lawyer. I have to agree on something with the client. Now, if I don’t do it well, I could design the subject of the e-mail as follows:
„Correspondence from the court“
That would be correct and neutral. The problem is, the client has no idea if this is important. It may be that he always finds judicial correspondence exciting. But do I know for sure? It’s better that way:
„Correspondence from the court; Need to discuss”
Immediately the allocation is better. The client gets a more concrete indication of what is involved. At the same time, the subject line already says we need to talk. The client will not miss this e-mail.
If it is urgent, it is also okay to make it clear in the subject. For example, simply put the word „Urgent:“ in the subject of the e-mail. If a reaction is required within a specific time, it should also be mentioned in the subject.
And you know what would be great? If the hundred people who forward me e-mails every week at least clarify „FYI“ in the subject if there’s no need for me to react. It doesn’t help me if I have to open the email first to understand that – maybe only after reading it for a while – I don’t have to do anything. That is no consideration.
These were my thoughts about the formal design of a good e-mail. More about the content will be available soon – because there is, unfortunately, a lot to write about.