Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

December 8, 2016

EMAIL: How to be polite, persuasive & avoid being its prisoner

Email AT symbol isolated on white background



@s with everything else online, email is forever, Diane Chabal told attendees at last month’s faculty and staff development workshop on “Taming the Email Beast.”

Email senders “have been very seriously impacted by putting in information people shouldn’t know,” said Chabal, a learning and development specialist on Human Resources’ organization development staff.

Email recipients also have been seriously confused, or simply put off, by ill-conceived missives. Chabal’s workshop aimed to teach Pitt personnel how to manage the email onslaught and compose emails that are clear and specific, and that elicit a useful response.

According to Chabal, the average office worker receives 121 emails a day. Thanks to remote access and smartphones, 68 percent of us begin checking email before 8 a.m., with 50 percent still looking at emails when we go to bed, and 38 percent interrupting dinner to examine our inboxes.

All that email checking amounts to 28 percent of our day — or 650 hours per year of what she termed “reactive, low value work.”

“It’s not as if we are seeing information that is helpful and going to move a project forward” — at least most of the time, she noted.


“Is email always the best way to communicate?” Chabal asked to start the workshop. For instance, if a particular message is confidential, it ought to be delivered in person, she suggested.

But if email is the appropriate medium, “make sure that it is very meaningful,” she said.

The first step for writing an effective email is catching the reader’s attention with a direct subject line that is specific to the email’s purpose.

“Good morning” won’t do — that could be the subject line of anyone’s email, about anything. “12/10/2016 meeting rescheduled” and similarly precise subject lines are much more effective — and keep your emails from being flagged as spam.

Chabal suggested updating the subject line of replies to reflect updates in your conversation, especially during lengthy email exchanges involving multiple people.

In the email’s body, she counseled writers to use the appropriate level of formality, as dictated by the recipient and the email’s content.

Millennial email users may have rarely employed formal salutations in paper letters, so may not think to use them in emails. However, Chabal cautioned, “Emails are more formal than a text,” and require some thought to determine how the recipient should be addressed. A more formal “Dear Ms.” or “Dear Mr.” may be warranted in some circumstances: if you don’t know the recipient at all; if the recipient is more senior than you in your organization (even if you have met each other before but had no significant interaction); or if the recipient is from an older generation.

“You can’t go wrong by being more formal,” Chabal said.

Can’t decide how formal to be? Take your clue from a previous email sent by your intended recipient.

Of course, Chabal emphasized, the most important part of any email is the body — the main text. There, sticking to words of substance is critical.

After an appropriate warm greeting, she said, try addressing one central subject alone, since readers’ attention spans are quite limited today. “You want to make sure they get your key point early,” she added, so be brief and to the point, clear and concise. If you’re requesting an action, for instance, say that directly, and include an expected timeframe for completion.

“How do you feel when you get a very lengthy email?” Chabal asked attendees.

“I close it and wait until later,” said one, adding: “You’re going to move to the bottom of my list.”

Short paragraphs and bullet points help readers absorb your message, even if they scan or skim your text. There’s no need for fancy fonts or background colors to attract attention; instead, she said, use a generous amount of white space so that your message does not seem too cluttered or visually confusing.

In the email program Outlook, emails can be flagged with an importance level for the reader. However, “if it’s someone you don’t interact with very often, I’d be cautious with that,” Chabal said. You also may be tempted to emphasize a main point by using a bold typeface or capital letters, but such moves may give the appearance of shouting.

“If for some reason the individual has not responded to you the second or third time … there’s something else going on,” she said.
“You want to sign off in a warm, appropriate way,” she added, “depending upon audience and relationships.” And always include your contact information in the signature section of the email.

Other style and tone tips offered by Chabal include:

• Spell out acronyms the first time you use them, unless you are sure your recipient knows what they mean.

• Never use emoticons in business emails.

• Watch for abbreviations that could be misinterpreted, such as f/u for follow-up.

• Introduce yourself if you are not known or well known to the recipient.


Before pressing “Send” on any email, Chabal said, there are some practical considerations to remember, such as whether the attachment actually attached, and larger issues, such as the tone of what you have written.

“You want to make sure you’re not too harsh, critical, [or] weak” in your message, she said. You can assess your tone by reading your email out loud, or asking a colleague to look at it before you send it.

It’s very important not to write an email when upset or angry — or at least not to push “Send” right away.

She advised: “If it can wait — and many things can — keep the message in your draft folder until ready to review and send.

“I’ve had messages before where I haven’t put anyone in the recipients’ box” until it needs to be sent, she added. “Sometimes you want to walk away from it for a while because you are emotional about it” or the issue requires additional thought.

It’s also vital to ask yourself: “Are the right people on the distribution list? Does everyone need to see it?”

Certain types of information should not be put in any emails: Social Security numbers; salary and other personnel information, such as medical conditions of fellow employees. Emailers also should avoid rude or inappropriate language and, in a business context, talk of politics, religion or sex, she said. Gossip also is something to avoid in emails, since “you never know who has kept it and printed it out,” Chabal said.


Chabal had important hints for managing incoming emails as well. She recommended using the 4 Ds:

• Delete it: Are you required to keep this email?

• Do it: If you can complete the task suggested by the emailer in less than two minutes, take care of it now.

• Delegate it: Should the email be forwarded to a colleague?

• Defer it: Return to this email after completing other tasks, if the email prompts action that will take significant time.

She suggested other methods for coping with a mass of emails:

• Create folders for different priority emails. Outlook lets you set rules that automatically sort incoming emails to different folders based on the name of the sender — your boss can have a folder, for instance — or the text in the subject line, or even key words in the body text.

• You also can drag emails to a specific date and time on your Outlook calendar, creating a deadline by which to accomplish the email’s request.

• Schedule specific time periods to respond to emails so that you have uninterrupted work time otherwise.

• Turn off email notifications. “It’s very distracting to have an email come across the bottom with a little ‘ding’ and it’s something you don’t need to read” — at least not right away, she said.

• Delete sent items and then delete your “Deleted Mail” folder.

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 8

Leave a Reply