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Webucator's Free Business Writing Tutorial

Lesson: Email and Other Electronic Communication

Welcome to our free Business Writing tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Business Writing Training course.

In this lesson, we will discuss how to organize the information for electronic communication and structure it for optimal results. We will also look at different electronic methods of communication and briefly discuss the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 and how it affects the way we communicate electronically.

Lesson Goals

  • Learn how to organize the information for electronic communications.
  • Learn how to choose the appropriate electronic communication method.
  • Learn how to structure the communication for optimal results.
  • Learn about the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

Organize the Information for Electronic Communications

Electronic communications, typically emails, need to be short, usually no more than three paragraphs.

In order to decide what information to include, you need to first determine the purpose. The sheer volume of business email alone is reason enough to be brief and to the point when writing business email.

Organizing your information into one of five paragraph styles will give your reader the information he or she needs in a concise, easy to understand format. The five paragraph styles are:

  1. Chronological paragraphs
  2. Compare-and-contrast paragraphs
  3. Cause-and-effect paragraphs
  4. Problem-solution paragraphs
  5. Relationship paragraphs

We will review each of these styles in detail so you can choose which one is appropriate for the email message you wish to create.

Chronological Paragraphs

If the topic of your email message contains steps to be followed, or lists events that either will occur or have occurred, a chronological paragraph is a good choice. This organizational style simply arranges information, events, or processes in the order they occur. Chronological paragraphs may include instructions to complete a task, processes, and lists of events to occur.

Example: An email needs to be sent to the members of the team responsible for conducting a systematic review process.

There are five steps to completing a systematic review of the new software installed in the accounting department.

  1. Frame the questions needed for a review.
  2. Identify the relevant work.
  3. Assess the quality of the studies.
  4. Summarize the evidence.
  5. Interpret the findings.

Compare-and-Contrast Paragraphs

In a compare-and-contrast paragraph, the best way to draw parallels between two things is:

  1. Show how they are similar.
  2. Emphasize the differences.

In the following example, notice how the first sentence introduces similarities between two things, the second sentence offers examples, and the final sentence lists the differences, thus providing a contrast.

Example: Online and face-to-face classes have a lot of elements that are similar. The content is the same, as are the outcomes and assessments. The differences are in:

  1. The delivery.
  2. The time frame.
  3. The interaction between students and instructors.

Cause-and-Effect Paragraphs

Cause-and-effect paragraphs generally work backwards from the symptoms to the causes. If you have to analyze a situation, not offer solutions, a cause-and-effect paragraph will help your reader clearly see that something was caused by a previous event.

In the following example:

  1. The first sentence explains the effect that is going to be analyzed.
  2. The second sentence explains things that did NOT cause the situation, thus eliminating possible erroneous conclusions.
  3. The second sentence then clearly states what the actual cause of the problem is.

Example: Over the last sixteen weeks the enrollment in our technology classes has dropped by about 27%. After checking with the enrollment counselors and student advisers, we have determined that the cause is not because we increased the tuition, but instead because the versions of the software we are offering classes on are old.

Problem-Solution Paragraphs

Use problem-solution paragraphs to convey information about solutions to problems. The paragraph should break down a problem into smaller problems and then offer solutions.

There are two different ways to present the information in a problem-solution paragraph:

  1. List all the problems first, followed by all the solutions in the same order.
  2. List each problem followed by its solution.

In the following example, one main problem is broken down into three separate problems, and then three solutions are given.

Example: We conducted a thorough evaluation of our website to determine why we are averaging only two or three hits a day. We determined that our keywords are weak, we don't have enough links from other sites, and when someone does land on our site, there is nothing to keep them there, let alone return. Our recommendations are to increase our SEO by strengthening our keywords, adding links to other pages within our site, and revamping the site with better graphics and more information about our services.

Relationship Paragraphs

A relationship paragraph is a model that organizes the material according to how it is related to other material. For example, low to high, in to out, right to left.

The following paragraph organizes the percentage of loss of revenue from low to high, starting with an overview statement. It compares revenue loss by department, the lowest loss first and the highest loss last.

Example: Overall, our company's revenue was drastically lower over the past year than it has been in the past three years. The frozen food division suffered a 13% loss, while the dairy department's loss was 29% and the produce department revenue was down 38%. The only department that showed an increase in revenue was non-alcoholic beverages, which were up 1.2%.

Choosing the Organizational Model

Using well-crafted, organized paragraphs in your email communications will provide concise, convincing information to your reader. There are some guidelines to choosing which organizational model you will use.

  1. Determine whether the purpose is to provide information, analyze data, or propose a solution.
  2. Solution paragraphs can be combined with other organizational models if the purpose is to analyze and solve problems.
  3. Chronological paragraphs work well when giving step-by-step instructions or relating the history of something.
  4. Make sure you have all the information and it is accurate. Organizing it into one of the models may show that information is missing.
  5. Use a model that accomplishes the goal of the message.

Check for Understanding: Organizing Information for Electronic Communications

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will consider the following scenario: your supervisor asked you to research the recent downturn in traffic to one of the company bookstores at a local mall and to recommend ways to improve the traffic.

Write a paragraph organized in the correct model to convey the following information to your colleagues at work: (Note: the information may have to be reorganized).

  1. There are vacant store sites more centrally located in the mall that are available for rent.
  2. The bookstore signs on the mall marquees have been damaged by storms and/or vandals and not repaired.
  3. Signage on the road near the construction site will alert travelers that the bookstore is still open, despite the construction.
  4. Several stores in the wing of the mall where the bookstore is located have been abandoned.
  5. Construction on the street by the nearest mall entrance to the bookstore has been going on for months.
  6. Costs to repair and/or replace the damaged signs will be absorbed by the mall insurance company.

Solution:

The correct format for the paragraph is problem-solution. Arrange the information with either all the problems first (sentences 2, 4, and 5) and the solutions in the same order (sentences 6, 1, and 3) or list each problem with its solution (2 and 6, 4 and 1, 5 and 3).

Choose the Appropriate Electronic Communication Method

There are two commonly used methods of electronic communication in business: email and instant messaging (often referred to as IM). In this lesson, we will look at some appropriate as well as inappropriate uses of both these methods in a business setting.

Email

Emails can be used both internally and externally in business. Generally speaking, an internal email will be less formal than one sent to someone outside the business.

Email can be customized to look like a standard memo or business letter. Tone becomes very important in an email communication because the reader cannot see your face or judge the tone by body language. The following is an example of an appropriate internal email message.

Appropriate Internal Email Message

Aggressive and formal tone in an internal email message will send the wrong message to the reader. Here is an example of the same email message using passive voice, a formal greeting, and a closing that is not friendly. A reader who receives this email may even feel a bit threatened.

Example of Email with Aggressive Tone

Corporate Culture

When considering the use of email for communicating in the business setting, take into account the culture of the organization and how it views email. Many organizations have policies and procedures in place for dealing appropriately with email. Some common procedures are:

  1. Respond to email messages within a specific period of time, usually 24-48 hours. Although this may seem like a long time, especially if you have your email open all day long, some jobs rely on email more heavily than others and it is not easy to respond immediately to messages. If nothing else, the professional way to handle an email message is to respond in a timely manner acknowledging receipt of the message and letting the sender know you are working on any requests that were made in the email.
  2. When responding to email messages, respond only to those who actually require a response. For example, it is not necessary to send a response to someone who has just provided you with information like the example messages above. You would not respond to Margo just to tell her you had no more agenda items.
  3. Be circumspect in the use of CC (carbon copy). Only copy those who need to be copied in the message. Do not use CC to simply alert others about the content of the email unless that content directly affects them or their jobs.
  4. Use BCC (blind carbon copy) correctly. BCC is also something that should be used carefully and only if the corporate culture considers it appropriate.

Instant Messaging (IM)

Instant Messaging is rapidly becoming more popular in business environments because it affords instant communication (even faster than email) and the ability to condense and tightly focus the message.

It is important to understand the use of IM tools as well as to know how to compose an appropriate IM chat. The IM function allows for real-time chatting that can be, and often is, monitored and stored by the company.

Following are examples of two instant messages, each one asking for the same kind of information. This one is appropriate for the business environment: IM Examples

This one is highly unprofessional: Highly Unprofessional IM Example.

The writer in the second message is obviously using very casual language and informal acronyms that may or may not be understood by the recipient.

When writing an IM in a business environment the rules of professionalism and etiquette apply:

  1. Check your message.
    1. Is it simple or complex?
    2. How soon do you need a response?
    3. Consider if email would be more appropriate.
  2. Have your message ready to type or even already typed. Don't make your recipient wait for you.
  3. Begin an IM conversation by asking if the recipient is busy and then be brief and to the point.
  4. Do not have more than one IM conversation going at the same time.
  5. Use professional business language to convey the proper tone.
    1. Inappropriate: "Golleee, what numbskull thought this up?"
    2. Appropriate: "Who thought of this idea? It is interesting."
  6. Use the tools in the program to alert your colleagues when you are unavailable or busy.
  7. End the IM conversation courteously by letting your colleague know the conversation is over.
    1. Example ending: "Thanks for your help. I will be gone for the next hour or so."
    2. Or "Ok, thanks, I will be working on this later today. Bye."

Check for Understanding: Appropriate Electronic Communication Methods

Duration: 15 to 20 minutes.

In this exercise, you will answer the following questions about appropriate electronic communication methods.

  1. Read the following scenario and answer the questions that follow. Scenario: A new software version was recently installed in the customer service area. It is supposed to make tracking customer complaints and their resolutions easier, but you have received several IMs stating that it is cumbersome, hard to understand, and not at all user-friendly. You know that the head office has stated that the software will be used and there is no room for debate on that issue. You also know that the training department is in the process of setting up training classes on the optimal use of the software, even though it is late.
    1. What electronic method will you use to communicate this information to your co-workers?
    2. Why did you choose that particular method?
  2. How would you respond to your co-workers who constantly IM you at work when you are trying to get something done and don't want to be interrupted?
    1. Ignore the messages.
    2. Answer briefly and cut off any chats.
    3. Use the IM tools to inform everyone you are unavailable.
    4. Tell everyone to quit annoying you.
  3. Which example below demonstrates the proper tone for an email or IM message?
    1. Huh? BTHOOM. I just don't get it.
    2. The new billing requirements are so stupid! Pretty soon we will have to bill the client every time we get a drink of water.
    3. The viability of the operation, compared to the veracity of the client, is presumed to be a presumptuous attempt to eliminate confusion.
    4. To get the new category to work, just enter MCS followed by the order number.

Solution:

  1. The answers to questions are:
    1. The proper method of communication is email.
    2. The amount of detail that needs to be conveyed necessitates email rather than IM. The following presentation will go over more information about how to choose between email and IM methods of communicating at work.
  2. C. Use the IM tools to inform everyone you are unavailable
  3. D. To get the new category to work, just enter MCS followed by the order number.

Structure the Communication for Optimal Results

A well-written, structured email provides information about you and your level of professionalism; therefore, this should be considered every time you write a business email.

Below is a general structure to business emails that works well, shows your professionalism, and leaves your reader with a good feeling about doing business with you.

  1. Greeting
  2. Reason for email
  3. Body of email
  4. Closing line
  5. Signature

Let's look at each of these sections in detail, keeping in mind that as the conversation moves forward in the email, not as much detail will be necessary in some of the sections.

Greeting

The greeting in a business email message is fairly simple. If it is someone you know and have done business with in the past, an informal "Hi NAME" or slightly more formal "Dear NAME" will work just fine.

If the recipient of the message is someone you do not know, but you know the name, then it is appropriate to greet the person with "Mr. NAME" or "Ms. NAME." If you are writing to someone whose name you do not know, the proper greeting can be simply "Hello."

The thing to remember is to use a greeting of some kind. It will help set the tone for the message.

The second part of the greeting is the ice breaker. It is just a quick, pleasant extension of the greeting and can look like this for a first-time correspondence:

  1. I hope the day/week is going well for you.
  2. I hope all is well since we last spoke.
  3. I hope all is well.

Once you have corresponded at least once, this part of the greeting should change to include an acknowledgement of their return message:

  • Thanks for getting back to me.
  • Thanks for your quick response.
  • Thanks for your response.

This second part of the greeting is also very important in setting a professional, yet friendly and approachable tone to your email.

Reason for email

When contacting a recipient for the first time, mention how you obtained the recipient's contact information. Possibly you met him or her at a conference or other meeting and exchanged business cards, or you found his or her contact information on a Web site. Establishing a connection early in your message will help your reader want to continue reading the message.

Once you have established a rapport with your reader, you will need to tell him or her just what it is you are emailing about. Make sure this comes close to the top of the message, right after the greeting, so your reader does not have to scroll down to see just what the email is all about.

This can be a single sentence, and should not be more than two sentences at the most. Some examples of this are:

  • I wanted to hear your opinion on ...
  • I want to update you on ...
  • I have some news for you about ...

Make it interesting, short, and to the point. You want your reader to read on to find out the rest of the information, but remember that email messages should be short and concise. If the readers do not have to scroll through the email to find out what it is all about, they will appreciate it and will stay on the message to read more if the topic is of interest to them.

Body of email

The body of the email should be short, to the point, and understandable. Bullet points are appropriate ways to list several points in an email, but they need to be introduced so the reader can follow the content.

There are three parts to the body of the email:

  1. Situation, problem, or issue: In this part you will write a sentence or two describing whatever the topic of the email is. Introduce one situation, problem, or issue per paragraph. If there are more than two or three situations, consider multiple emails, each one dealing with the individual topics.
  2. Benefits, solutions, or suggestions: A sentence or two explaining the benefit to the reader or suggested solutions to the problems is next in the body of the email. Always keep in mind the length and conciseness of the message.
  3. Call to action: Finally, you want to ask your reader to do something. This can be simply asking for a response so you know the message was received and read, or it can be asking them to perform a task, make a decision, or even purchase something.

Closing Line

The closing line is as important as the ice breaker at the beginning. It should be friendly, professional, and pleasant. Examples of closing lines are:

  • I look forward to your response.
  • Thank you for helping with this.
  • Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

This short message will leave your readers with a good feeling about you and your professional way of doing business.

Signature

The signature follows the closing line. Many email programs have an auto signature feature which gives you the opportunity to put contact information, links to your Web site, etc. in your signature so you don't have to type that information every time you send an email. The auto signature also gives your readers instant access to any information you want them to have.

Check for Understanding: Structuring the Communication for Optimal Results

Duration: 10 to 15 minutes.

In this exercise, you will do the following:

  1. Think of a scenario from your own work environment where you will communicate with two different parties about the same topic:
    1. One of the parties is someone you have worked with in the past and are very familiar with.
    2. The other one is someone outside the company that you have never met, but whose contact information you got from their Web site.
  2. Create the two emails and have them ready when you watch the following presentation on structuring an email to fit the audience.

Solution:

Watch the following presentation and use the emails you created to compare with the examples given in the presentation.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986

In 1986, the Federal government amended the Wiretap Act of 1968, extending the protection of information that is transmitted electronically to include email, telephone conversations, and data that is stored electronically: http://it.ojp.gov/default.aspx

While this act provides protection for the privacy of this information, it is still important to understand that the email we send from work using computers, servers, and electronic access that belongs to the company, is NOT our private property. It is the property of the company who owns the equipment and Internet subscriptions.

What this means, in light of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, is that all information conveyed through company computers, whether or not it is business related, belongs to the company. It then becomes very important that we, as individuals, do not use company resources for personal use. Many companies have policies in place that govern the use of company resources for personal use. If you are not familiar with those policies, check with your HR department to find out what they are.

Deleting an email that may contain inflammatory information or information that could get the writer in trouble will not eliminate it. Email is stored on servers and is accessible by the company for many years. Instant messages, on the other hand, may not be stored on servers, but many companies do choose to monitor and store IM messages as well. The bottom line is, do not use the company electronic resources to convey personal information or for personal reasons.

Check for Understanding: Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986

Duration: 5 to 10 minutes.

In this exercise, you will respond to the following multiple choice and true/false questions:

  1. Which of the following are NOT protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986?
    1. Inflammatory messages about the boss sent on company email to someone outside the company.
    2. Company secrets discussed through email by administrators in the company.
    3. Work schedules posted on a company's electronic bulletin board.
    4. IM messages not monitored or stored anywhere.
  2. True or False: Private email sent from an employee's personal email account on company time and using company resources is private and the company cannot retaliate against the employee for sending it.

Solution:

  1. A. Inflammatory messages about the boss sent on company email to someone outside the company and D. IM messages not monitored or stored anywhere.
  2. False. The employee is using company resources to send the message. It then belongs to the company.