One of my first office-based jobs was as an Assistant Project Manager.
I was responsible for servicing meetings – having to send out agendas, minutes, notify clients of meetings etc.
One time I sent out an email explaining the reason for having a meeting, and, having explained why, then put the important actions at the end. I was told off for doing this – my manager said that no-one would notice this information at the end. I was instructed to clearly put the most important information at the beginning and to keep the email concise and short.
Having mentally adopted this approach of scanning for information, I continued with this approach in Germany. I would get letters from agencies, Amts and Health insurance starting with rules and regulations. In my native speaker mind this meant that there was nothing important in the letters and put it to one side. However, I returned to one of the letters sometime later to find an ‘umgehend’ – in the last paragraph and on the second page!
I discussed this with a German client recently and she described the email process as follows: ‘we have a circle, it gets smaller and smaller, and then we get to the point’. Contrast this with comments from American culture analyst Erin Meyer, who says that, when giving information, you begin by saying what you want to say, then say what you want to say, and then conclude with saying what you want to say. You get to the point immediately!
From this we can see that you can have the correct grammar and vocabulary, but you can still fail to get the message through. So here are five tips to ensure that a native English speaker picks up the information you want to give to them in an email.
Five tips for giving business information in an email to a native English speaker:
- Use a first name Use a first name. Using ‘Mr Chandler’ is not appropriate for business culture.
- Start with the facts Start with the facts. Put the most important point at the beginning. You should explain your point in no more than three sentences. When I met important Heads of Department, I was trained to make my point in under a minute.
- Keep the length of the email short Keep the length of the email short. Think about whether it fits on a smartphone screen or not. Erin Meyer states that if it doesn’t fit on a smartphone, it risks not being read.
- Keep your sentences to 15 – 18 words Keep your sentences to 15 – 18 words. The Institute of Plain English make this a basic recommendation. When I wrote forms for grant applications, I was trained to keep my language short and simple.
- Short is sweet Continue with background data if necessary but remember that ‘short is sweet’. Native English speakers will want a concise explanation.
Note that this is a strategy to give important information, and not necessarily a strategy for every email you write to a native English speaker. There are different strategies for different situations – a topic for future blog posts.
So, how do you start improving your business English?
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