How to avoid confusion over time

Sorry, when? Dates and times can be difficult to communicate clearly. Save everyone the hassle and be precise the first time.

Avoid relative time words. Words like – today, tomorrow, yesterday, this week, next week, the following month, last year – can be confusing. You do not know when the recipient will read your message. Maybe they will not read the email until the next day and then today will have become yesterday.

Be as specific as possible. When possible, communicate time using month, day, day of the week, and hour. Then, no matter when the recipient receives and reads your message, the time will be easy to understand

Just confirming our meeting for tomorrow (July 15th) at 4:30 PM.

I am available the week of December 4th, either Tuesday (5th) or Friday (8th) between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.

How about next weekend (4/23 – 4/24)?

With international or long distance communication, take care to specify the time zone. The local time in your recipient’s zone is likely most relevant to them. Be kind and calculate their time, rather than listing your own and leaving it to them.

Would you be free on Monday (January 6th) at 4:00 PM PST?

Let’s chat on Saturday, November 11th, at 9:00 PM your time?

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Read your email aloud.

If you are struggling with phrasing an email or you are writing an important email, try reading your email aloud to yourself. Reading aloud has many potential benefits.

When people read silently, they often read quite fast and can skim over grammatical mistakes or awkward phrasing. Reading aloud forces you to slow down and can help you identify problem areas in your message. Further, when reading aloud, you may be more conscious of the flow of ideas and sentences. Actually hearing what you have written may reveal gaps in your explanation or unclear transitions between ideas. Reading aloud can also give you a better sense of the tone of your email. Is it too casual? Do you shift between informal expressions and more formal ones? How will your reader feel when they receive this email?

To read your email aloud, you must be certain you read exactly what is written. This is harder than it sounds, since our brains have a tendency to skip over and fill in information. Use your finger to point to each word as you read it. Alternatively, you can have your computer read the email back to you. Listening to your computer on headphones may be a good option if you are working in a quiet place.

You may feel silly the first time you read aloud. Give it a try though. Reading aloud can be a powerful tool in writing better emails.

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How to use paragraphs

A massive block of text is just no fun. Instead, try using paragraphs.

Breaking up the content of your message into more manageable sections will make your email easier to read and to understand. Plus paragraphs can help bring structure, rhythm, and flow to your writing.

Aim for one paragraph – one idea. I usually follow this general structure:

Paragraph 1: introduce yourself and the main thrust of the email
Paragraph 2: elaborate on the problem or issue at hand
Paragraph 3: suggest a solution or outline the next action step
Paragraph 4: close the email

So what does this look like in practice? Here are some model emails.

Sam,

Hello! I am writing about our meeting on Wednesday (March 3rd) at 5:00 PM. Would it be possible to reschedule?

I just spoke to Molly. It seems that she cannot make the originally scheduled time. She did suggest that we could hold the meeting without her and she could meet separately with one of us later to catch up.

If we decide to reschedule, I spoke to the other members. Thursday (March 4th) at 4:30 PM should work for everyone. The conference room is available as well. Is that time convenient for you? Please let me know.

Thanks. Best,

Alex Kim

Here’s another.

Professor Hinkle,

I am enrolled in your HIST 202 class (Monday 10:00 section). I am writing regarding the assigned textbook reading for next week (October 14th).

The syllabus lists the reading as pages 48-66, but on the handout you presented in class, the reading is listed as pages 104-160. I just want to make sure that I am reading the correct assignment. Do you mind clarifying?

Thank you,

Alex Kim

As you can see, the general four paragraph structure I outlined above is flexible and can be adapted to the content of your particular message. For example, in the second model email, Paragraphs 2 (elaborate on the problem) and 3 (suggest a solution) have been collapsed into one paragraph. In a casual keeping-in-touch email, each paragraph might introduce a different story or event that happened, or an idea that you have been thinking about. Yes, even in chatty emails, paragraphs are recommended.

I find that the majority of my emails are 2 to 4 paragraphs in length. Below is a histogram showing the paragraph number of my last 35 emails, which includes formal emails for jobs, progress reports to my adviser, and friendly correspondence emails.

Go try some paragraphs of your own now!

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Collecting Email Addresses

Maybe you just met someone new – a colleague, a friend, a potential lover – and you would like to contact them again in the future. Get their email!

Asking

In a professional setting, the two of you will likely exchange business cards. When you receive a card, quickly glance over it. Sometimes people have listed an out of date address or even multiple email addresses. To clarify the best way to contact them, simply ask- “So I can contact you here at (reading from card) ‘bob@companyname.com’?” If they provide corrections, you can note them down on the card later when you are out of their sight.

If there is no formal business card exchange, take the initiative! Ask for the person’s email address. Many people misplace email addresses or never follow up. By asking for the person’s address rather than offering your own, you ensure that you will be able to contact them again in the future.

To ask for their address, request that they write it down. I always carry a pen and small notebook with me for this purpose. If you do not have writing materials with you, offer whatever you have – the back of your own business card, a pamphlet, a receipt, a napkin. Since email addresses often include non-standard letter combinations, be sure to read the address back to the person – “So I can reach you at ‘crzygurl@gmail.com’?” Again, if they provide corrections or clarifications, note them down.

Unless the person directly asks, I usually do not offer my own address. Instead, I say- “Thank you for your email address. No problem about mine. I will send you an email as soon as I get home.” The person will be grateful not to have to deal with yet another email address.

Follow up

Once you get back to your computer, send two quick emails.

1) Email yourself the new address.

I suggest including details about the person – name, affiliation, circumstances of meeting, appearance, noteworthy facts. That way, if you later receive an email from the person but have forgotten who they are, you can use your own email to jog your memory.

New Contact: Bob Leonard (Univ. of Washington)

Bob Leonard
University of Washington, Biology
met at October 4, 2010 dinner for visiting academics
developing non-allergenic peanuts for United States market
tall, originally from New York City

2) Email the person.

Oct 4 event: Great meeting you!

Bob Leonard,

I really enjoyed our conversation at the October 4th event for visiting academics hosted by Boston University. It was fascinating to learn about your recent advances in breeding non-allergenic peanuts, especially given my own peanut allergy.

Let’s be in touch again! If you are ever back in New York, give me a call.

Best,

Alex Kim

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How to end an email

There are a number of expressions you can use to end an email.

Professional Email Endings

Sincerely
Best regards
Best wishes
Thank you
Many thanks
Thank you for your consideration
Thank you again
Regards

Casual Email Endings

Thanks
Cheers
Best
Until then
Have fun
Smiles
Hugs
All the best
Love you

Alternatively, you can simply put a comma after your final sentence and then sign your name. For a short casual email, this often works.

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About

Have you ever opened a blank email and wondered- What do I say??!

Never fear! Before Hitting Send will help you. Check here on Mondays for straightforward ideas and concrete advice on how to do email better.

Before Hitting Send is not just another email how to guide. See how to do email better by reading realistic model emails. And learn everything from the basics of composing a message to advanced techniques for contacting complete strangers.

So Before Hitting Send, read here!

Header Credit: Where’s Al? 1972, Allen Ruppersberg


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