9 to 5 Culture, Streamline Your Life, The Lighter Side

It’s All in the Writing: Make a Professional Impression With a Few Choice Words

I have a fun exercise for you to try. Imagine that you are running a small non-profit company helping low-income people learn how to use the internet. You have planned to send a few team members to three local libraries on specific dates the following week. These team members are outreach specialists working part-time for the company but their function to the company are invaluable. They are sociable and their purpose is to answer client questions and keep things running smoothly.

One of these team members who we will call “Dean” is in charge of setting up a large Power-point presentation about how to use Google like a beast to search for jobs. This presentation is intended for a low-income, unemployed audience. Four days before the presentation you receive an e-mail from this part-time employee.

Which of the following e-mails sounds better to you, and would you rather receive from Mr. Dean?

E-mail #1


I am going on vacation tomorrow and won’t be back until the morning of the presentation. I’ll have the presentation ready by Friday, I promise!! You won’t be able to call me this week as they don’t have cell reception but you can try emailing me if you want. Sorry for the short notice!!


E-mail #2

Good afternoon Mike,

I will be out of the office for the next few days. While it will be difficult to reach me by cell, feel free to send e-mail with any updates or questions related to the upcoming presentation. Everything is all set to go and we anticipate that the presentations will run without a hitch. In fact, we already have thirty signups at Jackson County library in less than 24 hours.

I will be in touch,


Not only does e-mail number 2 sound a lot better, but if you read between the lines the e-mails are saying essentially the same thing! None of the facts have been altered. Dean is out of town for a few days and will not be reachable by phone but will have things ready to go for the presentation. However, Mike is not likely to be pleased after reading the first e-mail.

The techniques I am about to demonstrate for you will serve you very well in life, whether you own a business, manage a small team of professionals, work as a freelancer or work as an employee. You will be regarded in much higher esteem and treated as the professional that you are. You are a professional, aren’t you?

Choose Your Words Carefully

The choice of words you use in an e-mail in a professional setting can make or break your entire relationship with someone. I am not exaggerating. In the e-mail example above it is possible that the employee who wrote e-mail #1 would be let go after the presentation for putting the management in an uncertain position and sounding like a 7th grader, even if the intentions were good.

One of the biggest factors in sounding professional and trustworthy is revealing the appropriate and pertinent information. In the e-mails above the phrase “going on vacation” was substituted for “out of the office.” Saying that you are simply “out of the office” implies that you could be working on other projects related to the company’s needs. You just happen not to be present. Writing that you are on vacation just admits that you aren’t doing anything work-related. This isn’t necessary, even if it is true.

Below are some more words and phrases you can substitute to sound like you are worth the time of day:

Don’t Say This…

Say This Instead!

I’ll be on vacation.

I’ll be out of the office.

I need to increase my rate to $70 an hour with you from now on.

I will be increasing my general contractor rates to $70 per hour effective May 1, 2013.

Here is your invoice. Please pay me when it’s convenient and by the due date.

Attached is the invoice for the refurbishing work. Please contact me if you have any questions. Thank you!

I need to leave by 5pm today as I need to pick the kids up early from daycare.

I will be heading home around 5pm today, but I will have today’s reports finished before that time. Please let me know if you have any questions and I’ll attend to them in the morning.

How much will it all cost?

Would you mind providing a quote for the homepage redesign?

You get the picture. In each of these cases it is possible to sound professional, courteous and in charge by simply paying attention to how you say what you need to say. In no case were any of the facts changed.

Punctuate Appropriately. Period.

In our first e-mail example we see the wonderful use of the double exclamation points (!!) in an e-mail to an employer. I will go out on a limb and say that one exclamation mark is often too many. Two is always too many. It makes you sound like an excited child at best and a crazy psychopath at worst.

You don’t ever need to use more than one exclamation point.

It is also important to write in complete sentences unless you are answering a question with a quick response. This can sometimes be understandable in business/professional settings where people are busy. I am occasionally guilty of it too. Still, you will sound a lot better by answering, “Absolutely. I will have those ready by Friday.” instead of writing “Yeah.”

You don’t need to be a grammar freak but if you learn how to write like a professional you will be treated like one. There are too many people out there who have weird pet-peeves about perfect punctuation and grammar. Yes, many of them are self-righteous high-schoolers, but honestly there are enough of these people that it is often worth double-checking and triple-checking your e-mails. If you ever are not sure about a grammatical rule you should look it up here.

Trust me. It’s worth it. I am doing you a favor.

Be in Command… But Be Nice

This is one of the more challenging lines to tread in business. You will be treated like a lackey if you are always asking permission to do things that you have already been given full scope to manage at work.

However, you never want to come off sounding demanding. In the e-mails above there is a ridiculous “promise” that work will be complete in the first e-mail. Not only does this sound obscenely childish but it has the opposite effect of assuaging the nerves of the management team simply because it sounds like begging for understanding.

The second e-mail states firmly but definitely that the presentation will be ready. It is simple and to the point. If instead Dean said something like, “Don’t fret. I will have the presentation ready by Thursday” it adds an unnecessary element to the conversation that implies that Mike is sitting around like an anxious, worried wreck. Needless to say, this little slight can cause resentment in some circumstances. Tread carefully here!

The Golden Ticket

If you are not sure that you have followed all the rules correctly when writing an e-mail to a work contact you should always heed the following advice:

Read your e-mail as if you were receiving the e-mail.

That’s right. Switch roles with your audience. Put yourself in their shoes. Does the e-mail address what needs to be addressed? Is it clear? Does it make you feel unsatisfied somehow? If this is the case, go back and analyze what about the e-mail doesn’t feel right to you.

Yes, this takes some extra time. But these subtle differences in how you write can affect your entire career. Exclamation point.



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