In this Chapter
- Discussion of the importance of professional communication skills
- Standards and guidelines for writing emails in a formal, professional style
- Standards and guidelines for composing formal, professional business letters
While people working in engineering-related fields are asked to read and produce technical documentation somewhat regularly, you will certainly be reading and writing professional communications on a daily basis. The day-to-day work of any organization requires an immense amount of communication to make decisions and share information, most often via email, but also through letters and face-to-face meetings. These types of writing and communicating are essential in a productive workplace and you should approach it thoughtfully and strategically, beginning to practice those skills now as a student.
Different workplaces and organizations will have different expectations and standards based on their business culture. Consider that conducting yourself professionally does not always mean adopting an exceedingly formal or highly technical writing style—it means being considerate, efficient, and working to meet the needs and expectations of your audience. As a student or as a member of the workforce, be observant and adaptable in your professional communication style.
Also consider that there is not always a strict division between these “professional” or operational communications and technical documentation. For instance, you might need to present initial findings from a study in a condensed format in an email for your supervisor. Always consider the needs and knowledge of your audience as you decide how best to communicate the information (see Understanding Your Audience).
This chapter presents strategies and best practices for communicating effectively and professionally in emails and formal letters. Professional settings commonly require other types of communications. See Managing Project Communications [Link] for information on documenting meetings and Designing and Delivering Presentations for tips on presentations.
Email is one of the most common forms of professional workplace communication. Knowing how to write a formal, professional email is a vital skill as you communicate with colleagues, supervisors, professors, teaching associates, potential employers, clients, and others in a professional context. Poor email etiquette will reflect badly on your communication skills, so it is important to take time and care with how you present yourself.
Emails essentially go on your permanent record—as a student or in the workplace. Emails are undeniably sent by you and are date and time stamped. Emails you write as an employee are not your property, and you can’t control what happens to them once they are sent (i.e. a person other than the recipient you intended might see it if it gets forwarded or shared). Even if the email only reaches your intended reader, it still can have a long-term impact, since many people maintain email archives. Consider about the scenario of asking a former professor for a letter of recommendation. They very well might might search their email for your name and look back at your past emails to refresh their memory. Be thoughtful, responsible, and ethical about what goes “on your record” in the form of email communications.
Use the guidelines provided here for any communication with the instructional team for FE and FEH and for any email in an academic or professional setting in the future.
Components of Formal Emails
Provide some insight into the topic and purpose of the email. Include useful keywords.
The subject line should be concise and easy to read—50-60 characters max.
This is the first part of the communication your reader will see, so it should be meaningful in establishing the purpose and importance of the message.
Use a polite, appropriate greeting to begin the email followed by a comma or colon. The level of formality will depend on your relationship with the recipient and the context.
In an academic setting, address a professor in a way consistent with their communications to you—check the syllabus, Carmen, or their email signature for clues about their preferred title.
In all cases, spell names correctly! Steven will notice if you address him as Stephen; Professor Li won’t likely appreciate an email addressed to Professor Lee. It’s a small thing that can make a big difference in how your message is received.
Opening: Thank You Statement & Purpose Statement
The first lines of an email should set a positive tone and set a clear purpose for the communication.
If appropriate, start with a brief statement of gratitude:
Then provide a clear statement of purpose for the email:
Use the first lines of an email to establish the right tone (one that will make your reader inclined to do what you ask) and establish a clear reason for the communication. Be direct and straightforward, while still maintaining a polite, professional tone.
As always, consider audience and purpose—put yourself in the recipient’s position and make the email as useful and efficient as possible for them.
Body (Main Content)
The body of an email will vary greatly, depending on the purpose and context, but it should always be concise and well organized.
The writing style should be clear and concise. If too much text is included in the email, people might miss important information so the aim should be clarity and brevity. Place important information at the beginning of paragraphs (topic sentences) and keep paragraphs short and focused.
Use these strategies to ensure that the main content of the email is effectively written:
Focus. Use an effective writing style without wordy phrases (see more about writing style here).
Remember that people often read emails very quickly—make sure that your tone, message, and request is direct and clear. You will likely spend far more time writing and editing the email than they will spend reading it, and that’s how it should be.
Most importantly, the closing should echo the main purpose of the email and make next steps clear and specific. If you are asking the recipient of the email to do something, if you will be taking action, or if no response is required, state it clearly.
As with the opening, it is also important to end the email on a positive note. Express gratitude, a positive outlook, or an offer of help whenever possible and appropriate.
Closing & Signature
To complete the email, use a formal closing and sign your name. If you haven’t already, make sure that the recipient knows how best to reach you.
It is also a good idea to set up the “signature” in your email client. Include 3-5 lines of text. Options include full name, role(s), affiliation(s) (school, major, organizations), contact information (.#, phone number, office address), website URL.
Strategies for Effective Email Communication
Here are some additional tips and guidelines to help develop strong email communication skills:
- Adapt your approach to the environment or setting. Different educational environments and workplaces have different cultures and expectations. Not every situation will demand fully formal email etiquette for every single email—it’s ok to “blend in” and adapt to different norms, adopting the practices of your audience. For instance, some workplaces might use very informal greetings, or they might put emoticons in day-to-day communication. However, it is always best to start with a more formal style of communication and adjust later, when you are sure it will be acceptable to your audience.
- Don’t project negative emotions. Emails are typically written quickly and on the same day (or hour or minute) that they are delivered. For this reason, be especially cautious that you do not convey anger, frustration, or any other negative emotion to your audience that may affect how your message is received. If you find yourself writing an email in frustration, pause and give yourself time to carefully edit and consider the phrasing and its potential effect on your audience before hitting send.
- Respect your reader’s time. Busy people tend to receive a large number of emails every day; they will appreciate your communication skills if you are efficient with your emails. In addition to making the information in the email easily accessible, work to minimize the number of emails between you and your audience. Ask yourself, is email is the best way to communicate this message? (Perhaps a quick meeting, a direct message, or a phone call would be more efficient.) Then ask, am I giving them everything they need? (Consider how providing dates and times of your availability for meetings, attaching documents that they will need to reference, or including links to helpful information might make it easier for your reader to do what you are asking.)
Formal business letters are far less common in the workplace than they used to be, but it is still important to know how to write an format a formal letter—you will often still need to produce a formal application letter and some industries might still use the formal letter as a means of communication with partners and clients.
The best practices for writing the content of an email and writing a formal letter are similar, but with a letter you are asked to do more formatting. You should envision and design it as a document (whether it is printed and mailed or delivered as a PDF).
Format and Components of Professional Business Letters
There are established standards and expectations for how a formal letter should be formatted. Here are the general formatting guidelines:
- Single spaced (1.15 is also acceptable)
- 11 or 12 point font
- White space between paragraphs (do not indent first line of new paragraphs) and elements (see below)
The annotated image below describes the different elements and sections of a formal business letter—click the plus signs to expand the descriptions.
- Professional communications like emails, letters, presentations, and meetings will almost certainly be a daily part of any workplace—building those skills as a student will prepare you to thrive in the workplace.
- Use a formal approach to writing emails in professional or academic settings; include a subject line, greeting, well formatted and organized information, and polite closing.
- Take care to present information correctly and accurately in professional communications. Emails may be written quickly, but they can make a lasting impression.
- Letters will be less common, but it is important to follow the standards of the genre when they are required, including the sender’s address/letterhead, date, inside address, salutation, body paragraphs, and closing, all with correct formatting.
Email Etiquette (Purdue OWL)
Strategies for Writing Effective Emails (Engineering Career Services, Ohio State)
Email Signature Tool (Ohio State Brand Guidelines)
Writing the Basic Business Letter (Purdue OWL)