Chapter 6: Emails, Memos and Letters
- Identify characteristics of effective professional emails.
- Discuss emerging netiquette standards in social media used for professional purposes.
- Discuss the purpose and format of a memo.
- Understand effective strategies for business memos.
- Describe the different parts of a standard business letter.
Email, text messages, memos and business letters are part of our communication landscape, and skilled business communicators consider them a valuable tool to connect. Netiquette refers to etiquette, or protocols and norms for communication, on the Internet.
Electronic mail, widely known as “email,” is by volume the most popular written communication channel in the history of human civilization. With emails being so cheap and easy to send on desktop and laptop computers, as well as on mobile phones and tablets, a staggering 280 billion emails are sent globally per day (Radicati, 2017)—that’s over a hundred trillion per year. Most are for business purposes because email is such a flexible channel ideal for anything from short, routine information shares, requests, and responses the length of a text, to important formal messages delivering the content that letters and memos used to handle. Its ability to send a message to one person or as many people as you have addresses for, integrate with calendars for scheduling meetings and events, send document attachments, and send automatic replies makes it the most versatile communication channel in the workplace.
This mind-boggling quantity of 3.2 million emails sent per second doesn’t necessarily mean that quality is a non-issue for email, however. Because it has, to some extent, replaced mailed letters for formal correspondence, emails related to important occasions such as applying for and maintaining employment must be impeccably well written. Your email represents you in your physical absence, as well as the company you work for if that’s the case, so it must be both well-written and appropriate.
First, ensure that you really need an email to represent you because emailing merely to avoid speaking in person or calling by phone can do more harm than good. If an email is necessary, however, then it must be good. As people who make decisions about your livelihood, the employers and clients you email can be highly judgmental about the quality of your writing. To them, it’s an indication of your professionalism, attention to detail, education, and even intelligence. The writing quality in a single important email can be the difference between getting hired and getting fired or remaining unemployed.
Let’s say, for instance, that you get an email from a customer and they mention in it that they’ve been shopping around for a company to do a custom job for them. This means they’re emailing other companies with the same inquiry. Let’s say also that your competitors offer similar services at similar prices and are similarly reviewed positively online. With everything else being equal, the quality of the email responses may be the deciding factor. Responding to the customer quickly gives you an advantage because you show them that you can get things done promptly. If your email is also well written in a professional style and error-free in every way due to effective editing and proofreading, you stand a much better chance of getting the job.
Comparing this with another company’s email that came a few days later with multiple writing errors in it, the customer will likely go with the company that wrote the better email. Even though the quality of communication doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality of work in the product or service a company provides, customers will assume a connection. Indeed, the quality of communication can certainly say volumes about work ethic and attention to detail. We must all try to make a similarly strong impression in any situation where the quality of email matters. Figure 6.1 demonstrates a standard email.
Subject: Construction Interruptions
I know employees of Evergreen Corp. are looking forward to moving into the new Station Street building in January, but recently groups of employees who do not have business here have been walking through the building. These visits create a safety hazard, interrupt the construction workers, and could put your occupancy date in jeopardy.
Would you please ask your staff members who haven’t already been moved to Station Street to stay out of the building? If they need to meet here with someone who has already moved, they should conduct their business and leave promptly via the nearest staircase.
We need to avoid further interruptions so our construction workers can get the building ready for occupancy on schedule. If you have any questions, please call me.
Melvin R. Vargas
Construction Site Manager, Maxim Construction Co.
1234 Main St, Big City, Canada
Figure 6.1 | Sample Standard Email
Possible Email Structure
- Subject line: summarize reason for writing.
- Opening: Explain your main reason for writing.
- Body: Add relevant information to support the reason in the opening.
- Closing: Add a closing thought, any required action or summarize the information.
Tips for Effective Business Emails
If you’re struggling to write an email, err on the side of not wasting the reader’s time. Many readers get hundreds of emails a day. While a reader might sit down to read a letter or a memo, they will usually spend a few seconds scanning an email for relevant information before moving on to the next one. Unless your email is sensitive or you are breaking bad news, it’s nearly always a good idea to state the main point of the email clearly and to clearly tell the audience what you want them to do. For an email, you should tell the reader why you are writing, provide supporting details, then tell the reader what to do.
Here are some tips for sending successful emails:
- Use appropriate salutations: Proper salutations should demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. For example, use a salutation like “Dear Ms. X,” (external) or “Hi, Barry,” or “Dear Barry,” (internal).
- Make subject lines clear: Subject lines should be clear, brief, and specific. This helps the recipient understand the essence of the message. For example, “Proposal attached” or “Your question of 10/25.”
- Be brief: Omit unnecessary words.
- Use a clear format: Include line breaks between sentences or divide your message into brief paragraphs for ease of reading.
- Have one clear purpose: If you find yourself covering more than one topic in your email, you should consider sending multiple emails so that your reader does not miss important information.
- Test links: If you include a link, test it to make sure it works.
- Announce attachments: If you include attachments, don’t forget to mention them in your message.
- Close with a signature: Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains your name and business contact information. It is becoming increasingly common for businesses to add First Nations Land Acknowledgements to their email signatures. It is important to find out from your organization if they use First Nations Land Acknowledgements and how to accurately include them in your signature.
- Reread, revise, and review: Catch and correct spelling and grammar mistakes before you press “send.” It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written email than to get it right the first time.
- Reply promptly: Watch out for an emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of replying to all emails within 24 hours, even if only to say that you will provide the requested information in 48 or 72 hours.
- Use “Reply All” sparingly: Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial email unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.
Before hitting the send button, revise and proofread your email. Put yourself in your reader’s position and assess whether you’ve achieved the purpose you set out to achieve in the first place. Evaluate also if you’ve struck the appropriate tone and formality. After revising generally, always proofread an email. In any professional situation, but especially in important ones related to gaining and keeping employment, any typo or error related to spelling, grammar, or punctuation can cost you dearly. A poorly written email is insulting because it effectively says to the recipient: “You weren’t important enough for me to take the time to ensure that this email was properly written.” Worse, poor writing can cause miscommunication if it places the burden of interpretation on the reader to figure out what the writer meant to say if that’s not clear. If the recipient acts on misinterpretations and others base their actions on that action, you can soon find that even small errors can have damaging ripple effects that infuriate everyone involved.
Netiquette & Social Media
We create and curate personal profiles, post content and comments, and interact via social media as a normal part of both our personal and professional lives. How we conduct ourselves on the open internet can leave a lasting impression, one not so easily undone if it’s regrettable. That sarcastic but not-so-PC reply to a public post on Facebook or Twitter in a heated moment a decade ago can come back to haunt you. We’re all learning as we go in this new media environment, but any mistakes we make along the way, no matter how much we’ve matured since, are still there for all to see and can have lasting impacts on our careers. Many candidates for political office have been taken down by their past social-media posts and you can be sure that untold numbers of job applicants have similarly ruined their chances with similar posts. Some guidance about what can be done about those mistakes, as well as how to conduct ourselves properly moving forward, can help improve your employability. Many years ago, when the internet was a new phenomenon, Virginia Shea laid out a series of ground rules for communication online that continue to serve us today.
Virginia Shea’s rules of netiquette
- Remember the human on the other side of the electronic communication.
- Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life.
- Know where you are in cyberspace.
- Share expert knowledge.
- Respect other people’s privacy.
- Don’t abuse your power.
- Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes (Shea, 1994).
It is also important to remember to keep your public persona online as professional as possible and to familiarize yourself with the privacy settings of the social media platforms you use.
Texting and Instant Messaging
Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of brief messages, or texting and instant messaging, have become a common way to connect. They are useful for short exchanges, and are a convenient way to stay connected with others when talking on the phone would be cumbersome. Texting and instant messaging are not useful for long or complicated messages, and careful consideration should be given to the audience.
Many companies have adopted texting and messaging apps for in house communication as there are several benefits. According to (Kashyap, 2020), these benefits include:
- Improved communication which is especially important when employees are not in the same physical space.
- Streamlined workflow which helps teams to work more effectively
- Better employee engagement which increases productivity
- Enhanced project management which reduces the chance of confusion
- Stronger team relationships which helps create a positive work environment
Tips for Effective Business Texting and Instant Messaging
- Adhere to company policy. Learn what the rules are for texting and messaging in your company and follow them. For example, contacting someone too frequently can border on harassment. Texting is a tool. Use it when appropriate but don’t abuse it.
- Know your recipient; “? % dsct” may be an understandable way to ask a close associate what the proper discount is to offer a certain customer, but if you are writing a text to your boss, it might be wiser to write, “what % discount does Murray get on $1K order?”
- Anticipate unintentional misinterpretation. Texting and messaging often use symbols and codes to represent thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Given the complexity of communication, and the useful but limited tool of texting and messaging, be aware of their limitations and prevent misinterpretation with brief messages.
- Know what information to send. Not all information should be conveyed through texts or instant messages. For example if you need to give bad news or send sensitive information or private data, it is best to use another form of communication.
- Unplug yourself once in awhile. Do you feel constantly connected? Do you feel lost or “out of it” if you don’t have your cell phone and cannot connect to people, even for fifteen minutes? Sometimes being unavailable for a time can be healthy—everything in moderation, including texting.
- Don’t text and drive. Research shows that the likelihood of an accident increases dramatically if the driver is texting behind the wheel (Houston Chronicle, 2009). Being in an accident while conducting company business would reflect poorly on your judgment as well as on your employer.
Using Social Media Professionally
Review sites, blogs, tweets, and online community forums are some of the continually developing means of social media being harnessed by business and industry to reach customers and other stakeholders. People’s comfort in the online environment forces businesses to market and interact there or risk a massive loss in sales and interest. Though most users learn how to use social media as an extension or facilitator of their social lives, using the same platforms for professional reasons requires some change in behaviour.
First, recognize that every modern business or organization should have a social media presence in the sites they expect their customer base to frequent, especially popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Messaging here must be consistent across the platforms when alerting the customer base of important information such as special events, deals, and other news.
Next, follow expert advice on how to properly take advantage of social media in detail to promote your operation and reach people. Large companies will dedicate personnel to running their social media presence, but small businesses can do much of it themselves if they follow some decent online advice such as the following pages:
- The Do’s and Don’ts of How to Use Facebook for Business [Infographic]
- The Ultimate Guide to Twitter for Small Business in 2017
- How to Use Instagram for Business: A Complete Guide for Marketers
Know also that social media is a constantly evolving environment. Stay on trend by continually searching out and implementing the latest advice similar to the above.
Finally, always consider how the sites you access and what you post represent you and your employer, even if you think others don’t know where you work or who you are. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required by law to archive information concerning the use and traffic of information that can become available under subpoena. Any move you make leaves digital footprints, so you will have to answer for any misstep that brings shame upon you or your company.
A memo (or memorandum, meaning “reminder”) is normally used for communicating policies, procedures, or related official business within an organization. It is often written from a one-to-all perspective (like mass communication), broadcasting a message to an audience, rather than a one-on-one, interpersonal communication. It may also be used to update a team on activities for a given project or to inform a specific group within a company of an event, action, or observance.
Memos can be tricky because they often communicate to multiple audiences who have different levels of knowledge about the context. For example, if you are communicating a new company policy, different types of employees will want to know exactly how the policy impacts them.
Common Memo Writing Situations
Memos are used in a variety of workplace communication situations, from documentation of procedures and policies to simple announcements. Below are some common types of memos:
- Policies (changes and new)
- Trip reports
Memos are distinguished by a header that includes DATE, TO, FROM, and SUBJECT lines. Other lines, such as CC or BCC, may be added as needed. An RE (“Reference”) line may be used instead of SUBJECT, but this use is becoming rarer as “RE” is often mistaken as “Reply” because of its use in email.
- DATE: List the date on which the memo is distributed.
- TO: List the names of the recipients of the memo. If there are several recipients, it’s acceptable to use a group name, such as “All Employees” or “Personnel Committee Members.”
- FROM: List the name and job title of the writer(s).
- SUBJECT: Think of the SUBJECT line as the title for the memo. Make it specific so that readers can immediately identify the topic.
These headings may be double- or single-spaced, and the SUBJECT line is sometimes written in all capital letters. Furthermore, the order of the items can vary. Many organizations have their own style preferences on these issues. If not, the order listed above, double-spaced, is the most common. The text of memos typically uses block format, with single-spaced lines, an extra space between paragraphs, and no indentions for new paragraphs.
Professional memos are organized according to one of two strategies: Direct and indirect.
- The direct organization strategy presents the purpose of the document in the first paragraph (sometimes the first sentence) and provides supporting details in the body.
- The indirect organization strategy opens with relevant, attention-getting details that do not directly state the purpose of the document. The purpose is revealed in the body of the message, usually sandwiched between supporting details.
The direct approach is used for good news or routine communication; the indirect approach is used for persuasive, sales, or bad news messages. A directly stated purpose is welcome in good news or routine messages but could be viewed as abrupt or insensitive in a bad news or persuasive message. When the audience is not receptive to the message, it is best to lead up to the purpose gradually.
In both types of organization, action information (such as deadlines or contact information) or a courteous closing statement is placed in the last paragraph.
Figure 6.3 provides an example of a direct memo.
Date: March 18, 2019
To: Department Managers
From: Safiyya Dev, Store Manager
Subject: Customer Service Excellence Nominations
Please submit your nominations for the quarterly Customer Service Excellence Award by April 8. Help us identify great employees!
Do you have an employee who you feel fortunate to have in your department? Does this employee show a positive and professional attitude when helping customers? Do you get frequent comments about this person’s friendliness and helpfulness? Now, you have an opportunity to give this employee the recognition they deserve.
According to the nomination criteria, nominees must:
The winner of the award will receive a framed certificate and a $100 check.
A nominating form is attached. Please complete and return it to me by Monday, April 8. Thank you for your help in identifying and rewarding excellent customer service representatives.
Figure 6.3 | Sample Direct Memo
As you can see, this memo has a direct and concise opening that states the purpose of the memo. The body paragraph provides the award criteria, which will help managers follow through on the request. The conclusion provides action information, a deadline and a courteous closing message. We can contrast this organization to Figure 6.4 below.
Date: Feb. 25, 2019
To: All Employees
From: Jaspreet Kaur, Operations Manager
Subject: Change in Operating Hours
Our call centre has been experimenting with a half-day Friday work schedule over the last year, and we’ve recently conducted an evaluation to determine how well the program is working.
When a client calls to order their diabetic supplies on Friday afternoon, our messaging system directs them to complete their order on our company website. While many customers are willing and able to do this, many do not have Internet access (hence the reason for their call in the first place). Their only other option is to wait until Monday to place the order, and if a customer is already low on supplies, this may be untenable. Customers who are calling with questions or to resolve issues with an order must also wait for Monday.
We have received positive comments, especially from our West Coast customers, about the extended hours we are open in the evening. We have determined that to continue to offer quality service, we must also reinstate working on Friday afternoons.
However, that does not mean that we cannot continue to offer employees some scheduling perks. In fact, the addition of later hours Monday through Thursday provides us with more leeway in scheduling employees.
We will have a staff meeting on Monday, March 4 at 8:00 a.m. to discuss new scheduling procedures. To the extent possible, we wish to accommodate employees’ preferences in scheduling, so it is important to attend this meeting to have your voice heard.
Figure 6.4 | Sample Indirect Memo
As you can see, the introduction is relevant to the subject but doesn’t directly state the bad news, which is that the popular early weekend schedule is ending. Instead, the writer uses a buffer that lists the reasons for the change to prepare the reader mentally for it. The bad news is then clearly stated, but it’s sandwiched between two positive statements. Note that the bad news is at the end of the paragraph since the writer doesn’t want readers to skim the memo and miss this important information. The memo then ends with action information and a forward-looking statement.
Style and Tone
While memo reports and policy memos have a more formal tone, most memos will have a conversational style—slightly informal but still professional. The audience of memos are coworkers, so the writing style usually assumes a relationship with them (and therefore a certain lack of formality). Just keep in mind that the relationship is a professional one, so the writing should reflect that. Furthermore, as with all workplace documents, the audience may contain a variety of readers, and the style and tone should be appropriate for all of their technical and authority levels. Figure 6.5 highlights various levels of formality.
|Too Informal||Too Formal, Stuffy-Sounding, Wordy||Appropriate Balance|
|Hi, everyone. Hope you had a great weekend. You know those awards we give out every so often? It’s time for those again!||Variety Craft Supplies’ mission is to provide customers with affordable, quality supplies with superb customer service. Excellent customer service includes being knowledgeable about the supplies, but it also goes beyond that. It’s about having the right attitude about helping customers. It’s time to reward employees who have a customer-oriented outlook.||Please submit your nominations for the quarterly Customer Service Excellence Award by April 8. Help us identify great employees!|
Possible Memo Structure
- Date: List the date on which the memo is distributed.
- To: List the names of the recipients of the memo.
- From: List the name and job title of the writer(s).
- Subject: Summarize the main idea.
- Introductory Paragraph: Explain your reason for writing, add background information.
- Body: Add supporting details for reason stated in the opening.
- Closing: Add a closing thought, any required action or summarize the information.
Tips for Writing Effective Memos
- Audience Orientation: Always consider the audience and their needs when preparing a memo. An acronym or abbreviation that is known to management may not be known by all the employees of the organization, and if the memo is to be posted and distributed within the organization, the goal is clear and concise communication at all levels with no ambiguity.
- Professional Tone: Memos are often announcements, and the person sending the memo speaks for a part or all of the organization. While it may contain a request for feedback, the announcement itself is linear, from the organization to the employees. The memo may have legal standing as it often reflects policies or procedures, and may reference an existing or new policy in the employee manual, for example.
- Subject Emphasis: The subject is normally declared in the subject line and should be clear and concise. If the memo is announcing the observance of a holiday, for example, the specific holiday should be named in the subject line—for example, use “Thanksgiving weekend schedule” rather than “holiday observance.”
As one of the most formal documents you can send, a letter conveys a high degree of respect to its recipient. Sending a letter is your way of saying that the recipient matters. Letters are usually one- to two-page documents sent to people or organizations outside of the organization from which they’re sent, whereas memos are equivalent documents for formal communications within an organization.
Common Letter Writing Situations
Though we use email for many of the occasions that we used to send letters for before the twenty-first century, letters are still sent rather than emails for several purposes:
- Cover letters to employers in job applications
- Thank-you letters and other goodwill expressions
- Letters of recommendation (a.k.a. reference letters)
- Letters of transmittal to introduce reports or proposals
- Campaign initiatives, such as for fundraising or political advocacy
- Official announcements of products, services, and promotions to customers
- Claims and other complaints sent to companies to lay down a formal paper-trail record as evidence in case matters escalate into the court system
- Formal rejection notices to job or program applicants
- Collection notices to people with overdue payments
In these cases, letters offer the advantage of formality, confidentiality (it’s illegal to open someone else’s mail), and a record of evidence.
There are two main types of letters: block-style letters and modified-block style. The block style used by organizations has a company letterhead at the top, whereas modified-block letters are typically written independently by individuals. Regardless of the type of letter you need to write, it can contain up to fifteen elements. While you may not use all the elements in every case or context, they are listed in Figure 6.6.
|1. Return address||
|3. Recipient’s contact information||
|4. Reference (Re:) *optional||
|5. Opening Salutation||
|9. Closing Salutation||
|10. Signature Block||
|11. Enclosures (attachments)||
|12. Logo and contact information||
Figure 6.6 | Elements of a Business Letter
Some of these elements are represented in the sample letter in Figure 6.7.
Bubba’s Bean Barn
37 Bean Street, Vancouver, V1P-4G3 | firstname.lastname@example.org | 604-222-3333
January 15, 2020
Ms. Marge Gagnon
Re: Offer of Employment at Bubba’s Bean Barn
Dear Ms. Gagnon,
This letter is to formally offer you employment as a Bean Counter at Bubba’s Bean Barn.
As a member of our bean-counting team, you will be responsible for using best practices in bean-counting to efficiently count a wide variety of beans and work effectively with a team of other bean counters. Your starting salary will be $65,000, including benefits, which have been outlined in the attached benefits package. You will start on March 1st, 2020 at 8:30 am.
On behalf of all of us at Bubba’s Bean Barn, welcome to our bean team! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Enclosures: Benefits package, full job description.
Figure 6.7 | Sample Letter
- Return Address or company letterhead: Write your address or use company letterhead
- Date: List the date when the letter is written
- Recipient’s contact information: Include the name, title and company (if necessary) and address of the receiver
- Opening salutation: Include appropriate greeting
- Body: Write an introduction with the main idea, develop the main idea in body paragraphs, end with a closing paragraph
- Closing salutation: Include appropriate closing
- Name & Signature: Add name, signature and title
Tips for Effective Business Letters
- be clear, concise, specific, and respectful;
- each word should contribute to your purpose;
- each paragraph should focus on one idea;
- the parts of the letter should form a complete message;
- revise the letter for errors.
Remember that many organizations have their own templates and can have their own rules for writing emails, memos, and letters. Check with your organization to make sure that your business writing reflects their standard.
End of Chapter Activities
6a. Thinking About the Content
What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?
6b. Discussion Questions
- When is email inappropriate? Why?
- In your experience, do people behave differently when they interact online as opposed to in person?
- How many text messages do you send and receive every day? Do you think it’s too many?
- Have you ever posted something online that you regretted?
- Find a business letter you’ve received. Look for common elements and points of difference.
6c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation
Responding to online reviews
The Green Beans Café is a popular restaurant that is known for its sandwiches, salads, wraps and smoothies. It is rated #9 of 253 restaurants in Vancouver, and always receives raving reviews from its patrons. However, the cafe unexpectedly receives the following review on TripAdvisor:
“The worst restaurant in Vancouver”
“I’ve been to many restaurants in Vancouver, but this is the worst one I’ve experienced so far. The chicken wrap was absolutely disgusting! It had BONES, the lettuce was brown, and the cheese tasted like rubber. The servers weren’t even friendly and refused to smile while interacting with the patrons. If I could rate the restaurant less than one star, I would. Please do not waste your hard-earned money here.”
Sunita, the assistant restaurant manager, is tasked with responding to online reviews. She recalls the incident with the guest as she was on duty, and believes that this person is being untruthful. Sunita is disappointed as the cafe gave this guest a complimentary meal, but they still wrote a bad review.
As Sunita prepares to respond to the review, what should she keep in mind? Write an outline of her response.
6d. Writing Activity
Read this article from The Muse on how to respond to too many emails from your boss. Summarize the article. Do you agree with the advice? Is there a third alternative? How would you respond to email overload at work?
Kashyap, V. (2020, January 29). 14 Best Team Chat Apps (To Use in 2020): Who’s Here to Stay? Retrieved from https://www.proofhub.com/articles/team-chat-apps
This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative, Business Communication For Everyone (c) 2019 by Arley Cruthers and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license and Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (1979). The elements of style (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Macmillian.
Wyrick, J. (2008). Steps to writing well (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth.