Why grammar and tone are so important in professional emails
You are the hiring manager for a medium-sized business. You are conducting interviews to fill an entry-level executive position, for which there are two potential candidates. You walk out into the lobby to call in the first candidate for her interview. Sitting, side by side, are the two interviewees.
Both candidates are women in their early thirties. The one on the left is wearing a pencil skirt with a tucked-in blouse beneath a trim blazer. Her hair is curled and pinned partially back. A small red purse sits at her feet. She is sitting with her hands folded in her lap, patiently waiting for her interview.
The woman on the right is wearing loose jeans, a white (or, at least, formerly white) T-shirt, and a baggy sweater. The sweater has a sash at the waist, which the woman has left undone. It hangs on the floor on either side of the chair in which she is seated. Her hair is sitting on top of her head in a messy bun, stray strands falling in front of her face. Her backpack occupies the chair beside her. It is open, the contents spilling onto the seat of the chair. She sits cross-legged, cell phone in hand.
Both women are qualified for the position. They are equally educated and equally experienced, and both give impressive interviews. They answer all of your questions appropriately, and they both shake your hand with confidence at the end of their respective interviews.
So which candidate do you hire?
We both know the answer to this question. Obviously, the well-dressed and kempt candidate is offered the position. But why? Does her outward appearance really make that great of an impression?
The answer is yes—dressing well makes people think you know what you’re doing, just like writing well makes people think you know what you’re talking about. If you’re dressed well, nobody will be distracted from your actual actions. This, ladies and gentlemen, is where proper grammar comes in. Writing well is basically like wearing professional clothes to work in an office. People will take you more seriously, and they will have a much easier time paying attention to what you’re actually saying instead of what you look like.
Of course, you may be thinking to yourself, I already knew that. Yes, I’m sure you proofread all of your reports and official correspondence. I’m sure you obsess over your presentations and documents, making sure that they look clean, polished, and professional. But what about more casual modes of writing? What about, for example, your emails?
Regardless of the content, what a poorly written professional email really says is this: “I’m lazy, and I don’t really care about what I’m talking about. I’m writing this email because I have to, not because I want to, and that’s why I didn’t bother to spell-check it before hitting Send. Even though I may be an intelligent, creative, and hard-working individual, you’ll never know that, because you probably can’t see past my glaring mistakes. Essentially, I really don’t give a hoot about this job.”
By contrast, this is what a well-written, professional email says: “I am smart, concise, and focused on my work. I know what I’m talking about, and you can trust me because I’ve proven that I understand the basics. I take my work seriously, so you can count on me.” See the difference there?
Your work conduct should be professional across all media. Even the smallest things, like one- or two-line emails, are a reflection of your competence level. This means that everything you do at work—from your professional emails, to your outfit, to the tone you use in meetings and conference calls—say something about how seriously you take your job. Do you want your coworkers or boss to think that you only take your professional emails as seriously as you take text messages to your friends? No? Then don’t write your professional emails the way you would write a text message. No short forms, no little faces with tongues sticking out, no LOLs or OMGs.
Use a tone that is consistent with that which is required in your industry; this will often mean using the same tone in your professional emails that you would use in a meeting. Then, be absolutely sure that you proofread your work. Look for typos and other errors before you send out emails, to save yourself embarrassment and to build your work image. You would never say something is just a résumé, just a business proposal, or just a cover letter. And you should never say it’s just an email either.
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