Five Ways to Strengthen Your Email

WomanatComputer175

Have you ever had an email “send” before you were ready to turn it loose? Who hasn’t experienced this awkward moment and its subsequent follow-up? Today, let’s talk about the fail-safe way to avoid this situation, as one of our five ways to strengthen your email.

1. A participant in one of my workshops came up with this tip: To avoid “sending” before you are ready, leave the “to” line blank until you are ready to send. Check your piece over for grammatical, usage, and strategic missteps, and then address and send it.

2. Consistently reply promptly, and you will stand out in a very positive way. One of the most common questions asked is always, “How do I get people to respond to me?” At all. Let alone promptly. If you do not have the answer at your fingertips, or do not have time to provide a lengthy answer right then, answer that email with a reasonable expectation for the reader, e.g., “I will send that information later this afternoon.” Or, “I can have that report for you by Friday.” This is what our reader needs. This is what we need to do.

3. Watch the tone of your email carefully. Texting has become the “short answer” medium. Frequently you’ll see “Yes.” Or “Can’t.” or “Don’t know.” But email has a little more leeway. So, with email, keep your message as short as you possibly can, and still provide the information using the best tone. Any message of more than a screen to a screen-and-a-half should be broken into a “cover letter,” and an attachment. The reader’s eyes have a virtually unconscious reaction to reading on the screen, which may cause irritation – both to the reader’s eyes and to your message!

4. Remember that there are four types of email: (1) the original that you write; (2) your response to someone else’s email; (3) the cover letter for (4) the attachment. Decide which you are writing, especially if it is just a one-paragraph cover letter for the attachment, where the “meat” of your message may be found.

5. Conventional wisdom says limit each email to one subject, and use the subject line only for that subject (as compared against carrying on with the same subject line for a variety of subjects). Good advice. It’s so much easier to find your message if you do this. Where the problem comes in is when you have a lot of different issues to discuss – each of them short, and in total all of them over-populating your reader’s in box. In this case, consider using an umbrella subject line covering the overall purpose of the email, or enumerating the two or three issues the email may deal with.

See you next week!

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We’ll be happy to bring a Gail Tycer workshop to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com

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The Write Gift – Beyond Price, Yet It Costs Nothing

youngBoyWriting200

This week, I’m feeling that old holiday nostalgia, and would like to digress, and talk a bit about some of the best gifts I’ve ever received. They would not be for everyone, but it may be they’ll spark some ideas for you, and perhaps some wonderful memories for someone special to you.

As a young lieutenant’s family, we lived by the motto, “If the Air Force had wanted you to have children, they’d have issued them to you!” So, if we bought new school coats, or shoes, or sweaters in the fall, we really had a struggle to get them paid for by Christmas.

Enter The Poem!

We wrote poems describing each of the “early Christmas gifts” the children had already received. Much to our astonishment, they loved the poems, and the small gifts and stocking surprises they got on Christmas Day. Of course, that was then, and this is now. Then, most of their friends and classmates were in much the same situation. So it all worked out then.

Now they get regular presents, but the poem tradition remains a high point of our gift giving, closely followed by the stocking free-for-all!

I look at my office wall. There hang three treasures: Grandma’s Garden, a beautiful poem describing Sarah’s thoughts while weeding, planting, and just “being”; Tony’s short descriptive essay starting with a small seed and its nurture, and ending with an emerald green bowl of Garlic Butter Broccoli on the dinner table; and Marilyn’s cherished Picasso-style ink rendering of watering the garden, bringing it all to vibrant life. Treasures indeed.

And then there is Madison’s work. As a third grader, she was assigned to interview a neighbor, and then write his or her biography. I was the fortunate neighbor to be interviewed. Madison received an excellent grade for her fine work, and I received a dear gift in the form of an illustrated biography she had hand written and illustrated for me.

The spoken word can be powerful. Texting is clearly useful, and generally gets a quick response. And we all enjoy Pinterest and YouTube.

But the written word is just as powerful, more durable, and infinitely more memorable.

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We’ll be happy to bring a Gail Tycer workshop to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, give us a call at 503/292-9681, or email us at gail@gailtycer.com

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Thanksgiving “Thank You’s”

Thank You Card

This is traditionally the week when the traditional Thanksgiving thank you letters and notes are carefully addressed, and – hopefully – postal mailed to our favorite customers and clients. A good idea?  How are they most likely to be received?

The idea of a Thanksgiving “thank you” is indeed a good one if you are really sincere. If you really mean it to be just that – a genuine thank you to the people who make our businesses possible. Thanksgiving is the time we set aside yearly for each of us to be thankful for the many gifts we enjoy every day. Thanksgiving is indeed the appropriate time to say thank you.

So what can go wrong with that?

To begin with, most readers seem to have an incredible “phony detector.” They can tell.

The first two things that come to mind are, to begin with, those smarmy sales letters, and next, Thanksgiving Sale letters, each carefully disguised as letters of appreciation. These kinds of letters are not worth your time to write, nor the postage to mail them.

To be effective, a sales letter should be just that: a carefully-constructed sales letter, sent to a carefully-selected list of readers, and specifically designed to show those readers how a product or service can solve a knotty problem common to many, if not most of the people on the list.

The function of a Thanksgiving Sale letter is to let an appropriate list of readers know about special pricing, terms, or bonuses available only during this holiday period.

These kinds of letters are often sent as the email equivalent of non-personalized bulk mail. When they are sent by postal mail, they frequently are sent bulk mail, and usually come across that way.

A far cry from a sincere thank you.

This is not to say that a “Happy Thanksgiving” added to an email is not a good idea. It definitely is, so do it. But these kinds of good wishes are quite different from a specific “thank you” message.

A sincere, appreciative thank you should be personalized to each individual reader as much as possible, and certainly should never look like a bulk mail promotion. A card or a letter sent by first-class postal mail, hand addressed, and with a personal hand-written added note will help. This will take a bit of extra time, of course, but if you really mean it, do it!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Subscribe to our blog – and we’ll see you next week!

To receive your Business Writing Trends automatically every week, please subscribe to our blog, or to our newsletter.

We’ll be happy to come to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, email us at gail@gailtycer.com or give us a call at 503/292-9681. 

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Five Tips to Get Your Email Read and Answered

by Alan Taylor, Guest Blogger

TwoBusinessPeopleEmail today is both a blessing and a curse. While it is a quick and effective way to communicate, it can also be a huge burden when used to avoid personal contact or when used excessively. If you work for a mid- to large-sized company, chances are you deal with well over 100 email messages a day – a majority of which are either unnecessary or unnecessarily long. Chances are also – big company or small – that you don’t respond to every email that needs responding to – even with the best of intentions. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you get your email read and an answer to your email faster:

1.     Be brief – Get to the point and stop. If it takes more than two paragraphs to make a point, the subject most likely requires a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation. There are great benefits in live discussions that typically aren’t realized in email. Another way to be brief: Don’t repeat yourself.

2.     Keep to one subject per email – Covering numerous disparate subjects in a single email bogs the reader down. Each additional subject distracts from the others and typically ends with lost actions and confused responses. If you need to list multiple items within a single subject, use bullets or numbers to keep things organized.

3.     Take advantage of the subject line – be as descriptive as possible in the subject line. Instead of “Important Reminder,” say “Important Reminder: 7/23@5:00PM Charity Run, don’t forget water.” This lets the reader get most of the information in the subject line. The body of the email can then be used to list additional reminder items. OR:

4.     Use only the subject line – (If you work for a very large company, like Intel, you probably already know this) If your email is only a reminder to bring water to an already-announced run, use (EOM – End Of Message) in the subject line: “Important Reminder: 7/23@5:00PM Charity Run, don’t forget water (EOM).” Readers learn quickly and also appreciate brevity in emails. The first few times you use this, you can include the phrase “(EOM) means ‘End Of Message’” in the email body. After that you can just send the email with no body message. Win, win: You save time by not having to repeat yourself in the email body and your reader gets the message without having to open your email. It’s like an Instant Message when you don’t have the recipient’s IM address!

5.     Highlight actions needed – If there is specific action in an email that someone needs to take, highlight it using asterisks or underlines. Don’t use all caps (it looks like you’re shouting). This helps the reader focus on the items needing action.

A large reason Instant and Text messaging is so popular is the forced brevity of the messages. If email were forced to 140 characters or less, chances are there would be a big productivity jump since people aren’t wading through long, repetitive emails.

There are thousands more tips like these and we bet you have some of your own. Please add your tips in the discussion thread below!

Alan Taylor is this week’s guest blogger. He runs his own consulting business, Alpine Technical Group, which focuses on web presence including website design, SEO/SEM, social and online marketing. 

To receive your Business Writing Tip of the Week automatically every week, please subscribe to our newsletter. We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: How to Offend, Anger, or Frustrate Without Realizing It

Do you wake up on a workday morning and say to yourself, “I wonder how many of our customers/clients/contacts I can offend/anger/frustrate today?”

Of course not! And yet, it’s so easy to do just that, and never even realize it – perhaps until it’s too late.

Here’s one: How many times, with the best of intentions, have you ended a letter with, “Please feel free to call on us if we can be of further assistance”? If you’re like most of us, you’ve used that phrase as a “curtain line” hundreds of times. We’ve all done it. Somewhere in the distant past, we may even have been taught that this is a standard business phrase to be used at the end of most correspondence.

Let’s talk about this.

To begin with, you never need a “curtain line” to end your correspondence. There are actually four customary ways to finish writing: a summary, a conclusion, a “nicety” (a word I made up to describe this type of an ending), or – and this one is too often overlooked – just plain quit when you have said what you have to say.

 Well, if it’s acceptable to “just plain quit” when you’ve said what you have to say, why do you need a “nicety” at all? And if you do, when should you use it?

A “nicety” is a tool of tone. Remember that tone is the relationship the writer sets up, or reinforces with the reader. Think about what you want that relationship to be: Helpful? Knowledgeable? Respectful? Friendly? Cooperative?

So the only time you will use, and the only purpose of a “nicety,” is to build or reinforce that relationship. And if you are not looking to do that, “just plain quit” can be a great option.

Now let’s look at the wording of that “nicety,” beginning with the phrase, “Please feel free.” You do not have to give your client, customer, or contact permission to call on you! Of course he or she should “feel free” and your telling that reader so may well sound a bit patronizing. Or at least it could, if your reader paid any attention to your “nicety.”

So here’s the good news: That phrase is so trite your reader is more likely not to read or even notice it at all. So why bother?

And then there’s that phrase, “further assistance.” We may have just informed the reader that he or she did not get the job, does not get the extension, or will not get the expected refund. Now we are essentially telling that reader, “If there’s anything else we can do for you….”

It’s wise to be sure you have done something of assistance before claiming you have. Better yet, avoid that concept altogether. Let your reader tell you if you have been helpful!

Let’s clarify a point here: The idea of offering help is a good one. Just be careful how you word it, and personalize your “nicety” to your specific reader, and the specific situation.

The same thing goes for the words and phrases we use. Most of them, as well, are carry-overs from what we learned in school. (Bless our English teachers – where would we be without them?) Just remember that formal, or academic writing, can be very different from practical business writing, and generally is.

For example, can you think of three ways to say  “about”? Well, to start with we could say  “about,” or “regarding,” or “with regard to.” Now, which one is the most formal?  Which is the least formal? Which one is down the middle?

It’s helpful to decide how formal, or how informal you want your writing to be before you begin to write. Consider the level of formality that will best support the tone, or relationship you will be establishing or reinforcing with your reader. Oh, and by the way, “about” is the least formal, while “with regard to” is the most formal. “Regarding” is somewhere down the middle, perhaps leaning a bit toward the formal side.

This week, please give particular thought to the words, phrases, and even paragraphs you use habitually. The throwaway ones. The ones we never think about, but just use without much thought.

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We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting. Thank you.

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: Strategic Email

Joseph Pulitzer said:

“Put it before them briefly, so they will read it, clearly, so they will appreciate it, picturesquely, so they will remember it, and above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.”

That goes double for email.emailIcon

Ask yourself:

  1. What am I writing? To whom? Why?
  2. What will happen when I am successful?
  3. What tone is needed to get these results?
  4. What content will get these results?

Figuring out what you want to do BEFORE you start doing it is critical for many reasons. You will virtually eliminate writer’s block; the writing will flow far better, making it infinitely more readable; your reader will have a much better chance to “get it,” thereby enhancing their impression of you as a credible professional; and when properly presented, your writing will have a greater chance of achieving what you need.  When you spend a little more time up front to think, to plan, you will spend a whole lot less time writing.

In an informal medium like email, all the rules we used to work with sometimes seem to melt away. Email is so much easier, so much faster, so much better – isn’t it? It sure can be. But it needs the same thought, the same planning that business writing has always required. In the business situation the same attention to grammar, usage, and format still applies.

Unfair though it may be, your reader also still judges you, and your organization by the only things he or she may know about you. So, unless you have established, or reinforced a relationship with that reader in addition to your email correspondence, perhaps through such activities as phone calls, meetings, or working together on a project, the only things he or she knows to judge you on are (1) how well you use the language; and (2) how quickly, and how well he or she “gets” what you are trying to say.

So take a look at that piece of email.

1. Overall, is it no more than a screen to a screen-and-a-half? If you have more to say, did you prepare an attachment for the longer message, and use the main email as a “cover letter” introducing your attachment?

2. Does your first paragraph – not more than a maximum of five lines – inform the reader of exactly what you want him or her to know? Or, does it persuade him or her to take a specific action? Is there any ambiguity? After the first five lines, is your reader immediately “in the picture”? Does he or she “get it” at a glance?

3. If you have a message detailing a number of steps or processes, are the details well presented in the next paragraph or two, following a logical, well-organized pattern?

4. Have you written – or not written, as appropriate – a good, strong close? Remember that just quitting after you have said what you need to say, is also an option, and may be a very good one.

5. Overall, how does this piece “read”? It’s all about the reader now. Knowing what you know about your reader, put yourself firmly in his or her shoes. What questions might your reader still have, after reading this email?

And then, still looking at it from that reader’s point of view, how would you expect him or her to feel about what you have written? Neutral? Happy? Angry? Depending on how you expect that reader might feel about what you have written, what can you expect him or her to do, as a result of those feelings?  And then, what, if anything, do you need to do to be ready for that response?

6. Is it possible to put your reader completely in the picture in five lines, or fewer? If so, most readers would rather read no more than five lines than they would several pages. Of course this assumes that from those five lines your readers know exactly how your message applies to them, what they need to do, and how they need to do it, if action is required of them. “Action” can mean anything from how to go out and physically do some action, to how to think about, or change the way you think about an issue or a process.

These are the steps to take to “put your reader in the picture.” This is the way to “Put it before them briefly, so they will read it, clearly, so they will appreciate it, picturesquely, so they will remember it, and above all, accurately, so they will be guided by its light.”

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Business Writing Tip of the Week: How to Write a Business Thank You Note

I could tell it was something pretty special the moment I removed the envelope from the post office box. Something important. Something that mattered. The envelope was notecard size, the address was handwritten. And it had a stamp on it!Thank You Card

Very special indeed. It was a handwritten thank you note. How long has it been since you’ve seen one of those in the business situation? Right. And that is precisely why it’s such a good idea. Because no one does it any more, any handwritten note, and particularly a handwritten thank you note, will make you stand out against your competition for, say, a job. A contract. An advocate.

Now in the business situation, there are layers – bottom layer is ignoring the thank you altogether. Not a good plan.

Next up – a spoken thank you. Depending on what the thanker is thanking the thankee for, this level of informality may be appropriate. In any case, it would certainly be preferable to saying nothing!

And then, how about a text? Or an email that could even be a bit longer. Well, still better than nothing, and it may be an appropriate tone and level of informality.

But how about that handwritten paper thank you note. Now that’s special. There is just something about holding that paper in your hand…

When to write a thank you note?

“Thank,” according to my Webster’s, means to show appreciation. You already do this, in a variety of ways, several times every day for kindnesses shown you by others.  But when do you write your thanks in the business situation? For those special kindnesses, as you would define special – the introduction; the special tip or suggestion that worked so well; the referral.

Timing is important. Write that note right away, and get it in the mail.

How do you make it easier to get started?

We could make this really hard. We could suggest visiting your stationer to select the appropriate notepaper and fountain pen. If you have the time, that is a good idea. But formal, dedicated stationers are harder and harder to find these days. The point really is that many stores carry good quality notepaper, and any pen that does not leave blotches or write only when it feels like it, will work just fine. Let’s not get bogged down with the details.

In the business situation, you will probably choose a neutral color, good quality stock with very understated, or no design. Some organizations have their own notepaper, and may use their own colors or design to echo or reinforce their brand.

When we were talking about thank you notes the other day, a friend shared a great tip from a friend of hers: Pre-stamp, and pre-return address several envelopes, and slip the blank notepaper inside each. When the occasion arises, all you have left to do is to use the same pen to write the note and address the envelope.

What goes into a handwritten thank you note?

1. Sincerity.

Sincerity, a sincere appreciation for a kindness done you by another is also number two and number three on this list. Your reader has a built-in radar that can detect one of those I-don’t-really-mean-it-but-have-to-write-it messages from 10,000 feet! This is the same radar that can detect the difference between a sales message disguised as a thank you, and the real thing. If you don’t mean it, you have no reason to write it.

4. The type of message that calls for a handwritten thank you note may very well be short, but should never be rushed. Take a few minutes to think about that kindness, and about the person you are thanking (you can do this while pouring your coffee, or brushing your teeth) before you write it.

A sincere thank you is always appropriate. A sincere written thank you is a very special thing.

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Tip of the Week: How to Say Thank You

The holidays are pretty much over. Have you finished writing your thank you notes?Thank You Card

The rule in our house was that you had to write your thank you note before you played with your gift. Most children had – and still would have – trouble seeing this as a humane edict.

Never mind the hours childless Aunt Jenny, who had no clue, spent shopping for just the right gift. Forget the hours Uncle Elmo stood in line to make sure that perfect gift was mailed on time. We wanted it now! All we wanted was to enjoy the results, and ignore the effort someone else had made for us.

And many children grew up with that same attitude firmly in mind. Now – can you just think how positively you could be thought of when you recognize and appreciate what someone else has done for you – in the business situation? Not only is it the right thing to do, but it defines your character in the frequently “me first” world of business.

We’re not talking here about “form” thank you letters, printed postcards, or even the thank you letter that offers an additional discount on future work purchases. These are blatant advertising, not thank you’s. Neither are we talking texts, emails, or quick phone calls – although, I must confess, I really am very happy to receive such acknowledgment and appreciation from the younger members of the family. But a  hand-written thank you note? The epitome of delight! And my favorites all do it.

But if you can’t find your note cards, better an email, a text, or that quick phone call than nothing!

If you’re really serious about expressing your appreciation in the business situation, you’ll want to send a hand-written note, with a personalized message just for your reader, through the US mail. Very few people – perhaps none – will take the time, or make the effort, to hand-write such a thank you. Stand up, stand out, and be the one who does!

 

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Tip of the Week: Professionalism vs. Availability

Remember the brick?Brick Cell Phone

Perhaps not. “The brick” was a term used to describe early portable phones. Not so much because they looked like a brick – most of them were somewhat larger – but because they weighed at least as much.

The brick was so large, in fact, it was frequently left behind in the car. Hence no interrupted meetings, movies, or client meals.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was referred to a “Dear Amy” column, where Dear Amy was asked by “puzzled” for a polite way to ask guests to “put away their electronic toys and pay attention to the live people in the room.” Next came the movie screen admonishment to silence our cell phones to avoid distracting other theatergoers, or risk ejection from the theater.

This aspect of professionalism is rarely discussed in the business situation, but it should be: What is appropriate “communication” in this age of instant electronics? Should you text, or surf the web when you’re with others? Or is it O.K. to take a non-related call in the middle of a meeting, or a conversation with a customer or client?

“I’m waiting for an important call,” translates to “You’re not as important as the call I’m expecting.” So what do you do when you are expecting a critical call? One option is to put your phone on vibrate, and let voicemail handle it. If it is a true emergency, excuse yourself very briefly, with as little disruption to the meeting as possible.

Better yet, when you are expecting a call, set a time with the caller when you will be available to take the call, thus eliminating the double frustration both of the caller for not being answered, or of the client or meeting for being disturbed.

And what does all of this have to do with professionalism in the workplace? What is the trade-off between being immediately available to someone outside your meeting or conversation on the one hand, or giving 100% to the occasion at hand by “being there,” wherever you are, live. Does your partial, multi-tasking attention present you more favorably, more professionally than giving this client, this customer, this activity your entire attention? Do you become more credible by splitting your attention among them all?

Does the point really become wherever you are, be there?

A frequently-quoted Stanford University study debunks the hopeful myth of multi-tasking by demonstrating that human beings are physically incapable of giving 100% to two or more different activities simultaneously. So how do you build your credibility and enhance your professionalism on the job? Give 100% to each activity, one at a time. In short, wherever you are, be there!

 On the other hand, what you do on your own time should reasonably be left to you and your friends – as long as it does not reflect negatively on your company, organization, or employer. Whether it is talking on your cell phone to a friend while shopping at the mall, or walking into a city parks pool while talking on your cell phone, as one unfortunate was reported to have done, that’s up to you.

What you do in the business situation is something else entirely. Client, customer, boss, or co-worker reactions might range from “oh well,” to mild annoyance, to downright full-blown irritation. None of them exactly what you’re looking for to build careers, credibility, or professionalism.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Tip of the Week: Effective Email Structure for the Four Types of Email

How your email is structured – how it is presented, organized, and what it looks like – is critical to how your reader “gets it” – or not.

While various types of online business writing are done, let’s focus on the differences between traditional paper, and email writing: format, length, and tone.

Format can be an issue. If you are part of an intranet, it is likely, in fact even probable, that the screens of all the computers on that intranet will be set the same. This will not be true for emails going to computers outside of your intranet. So if your email is format-dependent, it will be a good idea to send it as an attachment.

How about length? The maximum length for an email should be not more than one-and-a-half to two screens. Any more than that is too hard on most readers’ eyes. The result of this can be an almost imperceptible eye irritation that may result in a not-so-imperceptible reader irritation – definitely not what you’re looking for.

Tone, always a critical element in any written communication, is especially important in an informal communication like email. “Tone” is the relationship the writer establishes or reinforces with the reader.

There are four types of email:

  1.  The original

  2. The reply

  3. The cover letter

  4. An attachment

The original may be a very short message, requiring a very short answer. The original will be most effective if the first paragraph follows the who-what-when-where-why-how formula, and when you do this, you will most likely also reduce the number of emails in the string.

The reply to the original may also be very short. Depending on the amount of detail required for a complete answer, it may also be very helpful to use the who-what-when-where-why-how formula to reduce the number of questions going back and forth on this subject. Remember: no more than five lines in that first paragraph.

The cover letter for an attachment is an important, but frequently-overlooked option. The writer will forge ahead, saying everything he or she has to say in the email. This often results in a multi-screen email that increases the odds of misunderstanding, or even lack of understanding on the reader’s part. If your email will be more than one-and-a-half to two screens, “attach” it, and use a who-what-when-where-why-how cover letter.

An attachment may be as long as you need it to be. The first paragraph of each section, assuming there will be more than one section, should also be a who-what-when-where-why-how paragraph.

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© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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