Long ago in a High School far away, we were all taught how to write a formal business letter. It included the date, return address, and all the pertinent information needed to either file it away or write a reply. It also had a standard format, not terribly different from the standard five paragraph theme.
Today, everything is done in email. Everything. The sorting and replying are automatic, the formality is limited, and the attention span of the reader is probably short. What is the right format for a formal email to a client or prospective employer?
There is no right answer. I have been asked this by many clients over the years, and I have my own format that seems to work. If you have your own, please share with us and let’s see what we all come up with.
We must start with the basic formatting issues that are forced on us all by the nature of the technology. We have a subject line that is the only thing which stands out by our name in a list, so that’s very important. There is also only so much space on a standard computer screen, and even less on a mobile device. Everything has to be as punchy and direct as it can be.
Your name: Before sending an important email, be sure that your account name is not offensive or silly, and that your name is stated clearly in the setup. No one is going to read an email from Da Wabbit, for example (been there).
Subject: If your email is about a job, this should be the job title as listed. If it’s about an appointment, include that date. You probably have about 20 characters max in any situation, but the first 12 or so are the ones really likely to show up in an inbox list.
Once these basics are clear, there is a text box to fill up. I have a simple formula that seems to work for me.
First of all, I think that formatted emails are always bad. If you are selling something there is a place for a picture, but not in a standard formal email. Your goal is to communicate effectively and get your point across. You can never be sure what device your reader is using or how your formatting comes across, so leave it up to the their software to make your text look pretty, or at least the way the reader wants to see it.
The email itself starts with a greeting, which I keep as formal as possible unless I know the person. It’s so easy to slip into first names, but if you’ve never met the person try to avoid that. If you don’t even have a name (such as a job application) you can try Greetings: or even skip it altogether.
The body of an email needs to be as punchy as possible, so I take a trick from reporters. Many times, people only read the first paragraph of a news story, so a good piece always opens with the real meat of the article. Who, what, when, where, and why? You can’t go wrong with the standards for news. If the reader only bothers to see one paragraph from you, it should have the good stuff up front.
The second paragraph is a good place to go into more personal detail. An anecdote, story, or detailed explanation can go in this space. Make a personal connection after the details are done. Why are you writing this email? Why did you set up the meeting? Why are you applying for this job? This is where your heart and soul should go into it.
The third paragraph is then the follow-up course of action that you are requesting. What needs to happen after this email? What do you hope to achieve? Be blunt and focus on what comes next.
Notice that in this organization you have a paragraph each for the head, the heart, and the arm. All good writing has these three elements, but in an email they have to be packed in pretty tightly. If you do it right you have a good story packed into just one screenful on a standard computer screen with no scrolling down.
Alas, we still have to deal with mobile phones. A long paragraph, more than about 40 words, is a bit too hard to read. Rather than “paragraphs” you may need to deal with sections, each a tiny paragraph of 2-3 sentences at most. Hopefully, you can get all you need into that space, and do try. But if it doesn’t work, break it up in a logical place – but do get the “Five Ws” up front.
This may not apply all that well for informal situations, and there’s always room to send a quick “Whassup?” to a friend. But a formal email to someone you either don’t know or are asking a favor from always shows the kind of respect that greases the wheels of today’s world.
Short and to the point, yet full of all the important details. The three paragraph format with clear, concise goals in each paragraphs seems to work pretty well.
Any other tips for a formal email? What works for you?