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Professional Email Guidelines

Emails sent from your office email account represent your program, department, school, and the University. They need to be as professionally written and professionally presented as the communications sent out on your business letterhead or in paper memos. A group of University of Minnesota communicators put together these guidelines to help you ensure that University emails meet the highest professional standards.

Things to Think About

  • Is email the right way to communicate this message? Would it be inappropriate if the wrong person received it? Wait and think twice about sending the message. Email messages can be misinterpreted, especially when discussing sensitive or emotional subjects. Re-read it before sending and consider getting a second opinion.
  • Is the email going to the right people? "Reply to all" is often not the right choice. Do not use "Reply to all" unless you are sure you want everyone on that list to get your message.
  • What is your relationship to the receiver? Never assume a position of informality in your business emails with people you do not know well. Communicate as if email is on your office letterhead.
  • Respect the privacy of others. Remember email is not private. Emails are easily forwarded (accidentally or on purpose) and the email administrator may have the ability to read all messages. Email may not be the best option for conveying sensitive information.

Content

Subject field:

  • Use a descriptive, specific subject line (e.g., All Staff Meeting 12/3, 3:30).
  • Always capitalize the first word or use initial caps on all of the words (e.g., 2005 Communications Budget).
  • If conversation goes back and forth and changes direction, change the "Subject:" field to reflect the new topic.

Email body:

  • Make the first paragraph a single, well-written sentence that builds from/repeats the subject line. When people jump from one email to the next, they may skip the subject line altogether.
  • Keep messages brief and to the point; use formal conversational style. Write it like you say it. We tend to talk in short sentences, using short words. Emails should read the same.
  • People are much more action-oriented when they're online. State up front what action you want them to take as a result of your email (e.g., FYI, follow up on work items, please review and reply by Friday noon, click to special pages on your website). If you have multiple action items, number them.
  • Use subheads to break up your copy. Remember that people read books, scan websites, and glance at email messages. Help them to absorb key points in a hurry.
  • Include only one idea per paragraph, and try to keep paragraphs to three sentences or less.
  • Use hard returns to create line breaks, making white space so your message has visual breaks.
  • Do not use all capital letters for body text or subject lines. All capital letters can be used as short headers within email.
  • Do not use emoticons in professional emails. Use them only if you have a well-established relationship with someone.
  • Do not use abbreviations unless they are already common to the English language, such as FYI and BTW. ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing) is not a phrase you would use in letterhead.
  • Check spelling and grammar. Proofread your messages.

External/formal emails:

  • Address your contact with the highest level of courtesy (e.g., Dear Ms. McKinley) until your contact indicates that less formal is appropriate.
  • Have a salutation (e.g., Hello) and sign off (e.g., Sincerely,) in every email, just as you would in business letterhead.
  • Do not use academic jargon and "institution-speak." Use words and terms your target audience is familiar with.

Format

Etiquette:

  • Use standard email signatures no more than four to seven lines, including your program tagline. Consider whether you need a standard format for your program or department.
  • When initiating an email, in the "To:" and "From:" fields, have your contacts' names and your name typed with proper capitalization and punctuation (e.g., John B. Doe, not john b doe or JOHN B DOE).
  • When replying to emails, your reply should be the first item in the body of the email. Do not place your reply below the original email, causing people to have to search for it.
  • Do not just hit reply or forward and start typing! Edit your replies. Do not make the recipient scan your forwarded email for the part that you wanted them to see. Remove parts of the previous email that do not apply to your response, including headers and signature files, and ">" symbols and extra spaces.
  • Do not grab an old email to send a new message. Start a fresh email with a new subject line and no old content.
  • Use "Bcc:" when emailing a group of people who do not personally know each other. Putting addresses in the "To:" or "Cc:" fields makes email addresses available to others. This is a privacy issue. Bcc is also a way to hide long recipient lists and make the message easier to read.
  • Use "Cc:" when a couple of people need to be kept informed on information. "Cc:" means FYI and no action is needed. Only Cc people if they really need to be kept informed or want the information.
  • Send only messages of relevance. Use "Reply to all:" and "Cc:" only if all of the parties need to know. An untargeted message will be considered spam by many.
  • Before sending, double-check the recipient list and subject line. Make sure that any attachments are actually included.

Mechanics:

  • Do not mark as urgent (flag). If it's urgent, call.
  • Do not use the return receipt feature unless you absolutely need it. This feature notifies senders when their messages have been opened. Recipients might feel that this is an invasion of their privacy.
  • Use common file formats for email attachments (DOC, JPG/GIF, PDF, TXT, XLS). If you are sending a file from a Mac to a PC user be sure to add the proper file extension so the recipient can open your file.
  • Set a 65-character line length, especially if you send formal business emails and electronic newsletters. This inserts hard carriage returns so that lines are no longer than 65 characters. It keeps line wrap problems caused by different email programs to a minimum. Individual words are not broken, but be aware that long URLs will be broken between lines. Many people do not realize that they can easily re-connect the pieces to restore the hyperlinked URL. If you forward an email set at a longer line length, you will get bad line breaks.
  • In Outlook Express go to Tools, Options then the Send tab and select "Plain text" as the mail sending format and then click on "Plain text settings." Set the number to 65 in the "Automatically wrap text…" section.
  • In Outlook go to Tools, Options, then the Mail format tab and select "Plain text" as the format and then go to settings, select 65. You now have your email program configured to hit enter every 65 characters whenever you send email.
  • For long URLs, consider using http:/z.umn.edu to create short URLs. This allows you to enter a long URL and the application generates a shortcut link that is easier to use in email communications. You lose the identity of the original site after these sites automatically generate the URL. You may not want to use this for your own website pages.

Unit Specific Policies

  • Set the number of days to respond to all outside emails, e.g., within two business days.
  • Determine if staff should use automatic email replies to alert people that you might not read your email for a while.

Web Links / References

General:

Accessibility:

The Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard is designed to ease navigation of plain text email newsletters by all readers, including people with visual impairments using special access technologies. www.headstar.com/ten

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