One of my first office-based jobs was as an Assistant Project Manager.
I was responsible for servicing meetings. I had to give business information in an English e-mail every day. For example, I sent out agendas, minutes, informed clients of future meetings etc.
One time I sent out an e-mail 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 e-mail 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 British 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‘ (urgent) – in the last paragraph and on the second page!
I discussed this with a German client recently and she described the e-mail 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 Brits (and English speakers) quickly understand the information you give them in a business e-mail.
Five tips for giving business information in an email in English
Use a first name
Using ‘Mr Chandler’ is not normally appropriate for business culture if you know the person, have a connection with them, and are in regular contact with them. It looks strange.
However, I sometimes use Mr or Mrs if I a) do not know the person and am writing to them for the first time b) want to show respect and c) am providing a service and the person is much older than me.
If you’re not sure, I suggest you use Mr or Mrs. It’s safer.
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 e-mail short
Keep the length of the e-mail 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’. Most 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 an English speaker.
So, how do you start improving your business English?
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