Text messaging, emailing, and posting on social media in a professional context requires that you be familiar with “netiquette,” or proper etiquette for using the internet. We have all heard the news stories about people who have been fired and companies that have been boycotted for making offensive or inappropriate social media posts. People have even gone to prison for illegal use of private messaging. The digital world may seem like a free-for-all, “wild wild west” with no clear rules or regulations; however, this is clearly a dangerous perspective for a professional to take, as the consequences for breaking tacit rules, expectations, and guidelines for professional communications can be very costly.
The way you represent yourself in writing carries significant weight. Writing in an online environment requires tact, skill, and an awareness that what you write may be there for a very long time and maybe seen by people you never considered as your intended audience. From text messages to memos to letters, from business proposals to press releases, your written business communication represents you and your company: Your goal is to make your messages clear, concise, constructive, and professional.
We create personal pages, post messages, and interact via online technologies as a normal part of our careers, but how we conduct ourselves can leave a lasting image, literally. The photograph you posted on your Instagram page or Twitter feed may have been seen by your potential employer, or that insensitive remark in a Facebook post may come back to haunt you later.
Following several guidelines for online postings, as detailed below, can help you avoid embarrassment later:
- Know your context
- Carefully analyze the communication situation: audience, purpose, and environment.
- Adapt the language and tone of the message accordingly.
- Avoid assumptions about your readers; remember that culture influences communication style and practices.
- Familiarize yourself with the Acceptable Use of IT Resources policy at your organization.
- Remember the human aspect
- Introduce yourself.
- Remember there is a person behind the words; ask for clarification before making a judgment.
- Check your tone before you publish; avoid jokes, sarcasm, and irony as these can often be misinterpreted and get “lost in translation” in the online environment.
- Respond to people using their names.
- Remember that culture, age, and gender can play a part in how people communicate.
- Remain authentic and expect the same of others.
- Remember that people may not reply immediately. People participate in different ways, some just by reading the communication rather than jumping into it.
Recognize that text is permanent
Be judicious and diplomatic; what you say online may be difficult or even impossible to retract later.
Think in terms of how you are representing your organization.
Agree on ground rules for text communication (formal or informal; seek clarification whenever needed) if you are working collaboratively.
- Avoid flaming: Research before you react
- Accept and forgive mistakes.
- Consider your responsibility to the group and to the working environment.
- Seek clarification before reacting; what you heard is not always what was said.
- Ask your supervisor for guidance.*
- Respect privacy and original ideas
- Quote the original author if you are responding with a specific point made by someone else.
- Ask the author of an email for permission before forwarding the communication or otherwise using their message content.
- Familiarize yourself with the Copyright and Privacy policies at your organization.
* Sometimes, online behavior can appear so disrespectful and even hostile that it requires attention and follow-up. In this case, let your supervisor know right away so that the right resources can be called upon to help.
For further information on netiquette, check out the following links:
- Business Insider: Email etiquette rules every professional needs to know
- LinkedIn: Email Etiquette
Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of brief messages or notes has become a common way to connect using short messaging service (SMS) also known as texting. It is useful for short exchanges and is a convenient way to stay connected with others when talking on the phone would be cumbersome. Texting is not useful for long or complicated messages, and careful consideration should be given to the audience. However, it has become a method for employees to keep in frequent communication regarding dynamic situations and ongoing projects.
When texting, always consider your audience and your company, and choose words, terms, or abbreviations that will deliver your message appropriately and effectively. Since not all employees are familiar with abbreviations and acronyms used in texting or comfortable with texting overall, always ask before beginning interactions using this method.
If your work situation allows or requires you to communicate via text messages, keep the following tips in mind:
- Know your recipient: “? % dsct” may be an understandable way to ask a close associate the correct discount amount that should be offered a certain customer, but if you are writing a text to your boss, it might be wiser to write, “what % discount does Murray get on $1K order?”
- Anticipate unintentional misinterpretation: Texting often uses symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms to represent thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Given the complexity of communication, and the useful but limited capacity of texting, be aware of its limitation and prevent misinterpretation. Spell it out when in doubt.
- Use appropriately: Contacting someone too frequently can border on harassment. Texting is a tool. Use it when appropriate, but don’t abuse it.
- Don’t text and drive: Research shows that the likelihood of an accident increases dramatically if the driver is texting behind the wheel (Shapely, 2020). Being in an accident while conducting company business would reflect poorly on your judgment as well as on your employer.
Email is familiar to most students and workers. It is used to send brief, routine communications and technical information electronically. Over the years, it has become the primary form of communication for companies (Bovee, Thill, & Scribner, 2016, p.127) because it is rapid and inexpensive. In fact, it has largely replaced print hard copy letters for external (outside the company) correspondence, and by-and-large has taken the place of memos for internal (within the company) communication (Guffey, 2008).
Email can be very useful for messages that have more content than a text message, but it is still best used for fairly brief messages or brief technical notices. It is used to send requests, confirm conversations (Writing and Communication Centre, n.d.), and to transmit documents in attachments. You may also use emails to request information about a company or organization, such as whether they anticipate job openings in the near future or whether they fund site redesign projects. In this case, you would send an email of inquiry, asking for information. Keep your request brief, introducing yourself in the opening paragraph and then clearly stating your purpose and/or request in the second paragraph. If you need very specific information, consider placing your request in list form for clarity. Conclude in a friendly way that shows appreciation for the help you will receive.
Many organizations use automated emails to acknowledge communications from the public or to remind associates that periodic reports or payments are due. You may also be assigned to “populate” a form email in which standard paragraphs are used but you choose from a menu of sentences to make the wording suitable for a particular transaction.
Emails may be informal in personal contexts, but technical and business communication requires attention to detail, awareness that your email reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it may be forwarded to any third party if necessary. Email often serves to exchange information within organizations. Although email may have an informal feel, remember that when used for business or technical purposes, it must convey professionalism and respect. Never write or send anything that you wouldn’t want to be read in public or in front of your company president.
As with all writing, professional communications require attention to the specific writing context, and it may surprise you that even elements of form can indicate a writer’s strong understanding of audience and purpose. The principles explained here apply to the educational context as well; use them when communicating with your instructors and classroom peers.
Open with a proper salutation: Salutations demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. Be aware of their levels of formality. Consider, for example, the difference between a salutation like “Dear Ms. Abenaki,” (external and formal in tone) and “Hi Barry,” (internal and informal).
Include a clear, brief, and specific subject line: An effective subject line helps the recipient understand the essence of the message, so make it brief, concrete, and specific. For example, “EMS software proposal attached” or “Electrical specs for project Y” inform the reader of the subject of the message. Avoid using a subject line that is too vague, like “Proposal.”
Ensure that the content is accurate: To avoid costly decisions based on inaccurate information, ensure that the technical and business content of the message is accurate. In critical communications, you should ask a colleague for a second look before sending the message.
Close with a signature: Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains your name and business contact information. You can do this using the settings in the email software.
Avoid abbreviations: An email is not a text message, and the audience may not find your wit cause to ROTFLOL (roll on the floor laughing out loud). Do not use abbreviations, acronyms, or symbols.
Be brief: Omit unnecessary words.
Use a readable structure and format: Divide your message into brief paragraphs for ease of reading. A readable email should get to the point and conclude in three small paragraphs or less. Use this basic structure for multi-paragraph messages: Open with the purpose statement and background, add details/explanation, end with a courteous close or an action request.
Reread, revise, and review: Catch and correct spelling and grammar mistakes before you press “send.” It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written email than to take the time to get it right the first time. Some email software makes this process easy by flagging errors.
Reply promptly: Watch out for your own emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of replying to all emails within twenty-four hours, even if only to say that you will provide the requested information in forty-eight or seventy-two hours.
Follow up: If you don’t get a response in twenty-four hours, email or call. Spam filters may have intercepted your message, so your recipient may never have received it.
Use “Reply All” sparingly: Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial email unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.
Avoid using all caps: Capital letters are used on the Internet to communicate emphatic emotion or yelling and are considered rude.
Test links: If you include a link, test it to make sure it is working. You can do this by sending yourself a test message.
Consider file size and options: Audio and visual files are often quite large; avoid exceeding the recipient’s mailbox limit or triggering the spam filter. If your file is of an excessive size, upload it to cloud storage and share the file using a link.
Tip: Add the address of the recipient last to avoid sending your message prematurely. This will give you time to do a last review of what you’ve written, make sure links work, make sure you’ve added the attachment, etc., before adding the sender’s address and hitting Send.
(Professional Email Etiquette, 2021)
Check out the University of Waterloo’s Writing Professional Emails in the Workplace for more information.
Most people will recognize the similarity between memo and email formats since the email header has been modeled on the memo header.
The message is then inserted here using the document design characteristics discussed in previous chapters.
The sample email below demonstrates the principles listed above.
From: Steve Jansen <email@example.com>
To: All Employees <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: September 12, 20XX
Subject: Working at Heights Training
Please sign up for the next available Working At Heights training offered free of charge by the company. Working At Heights training is a program offered to all employees who must work on construction projects.
As you know, our company wants to ensure your safety when working at heights and abide by a recent Ontario occupational health and safety regulations that aim to protect the well being of workers.
If you are working at heights and have not as yet taken this training, please sign up for the next workshop scheduled for Friday, October 9 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the Working At Heights training program, please visit https://worksitesafety.ca/
Please let me know if you will attend by filling out the attached form.
CEO, APL Construction, Inc.
Memoranda, or memos, are one of the most versatile document forms used in professional settings. Memos are “in-house” documents (sent within an organization) to pass along or request information, outline policies, present short reports, and propose ideas. While they are often used to inform, they can also be persuasive documents. A company or institution typically has its own “in-house” style or template that is used for documents such as letters and memos.
The Header Block appears at the top left side of your memo, directly underneath the word MEMO or MEMORANDUM in large, bold, capitalized letters. This section contains detailed information on the recipient, sender, and purpose. It includes the following lines:
TO: Give the recipient’s full name, and position or title within the organization
FROM: Include the sender’s (your) full name and position or title
DATE: Include the full date on which you sent the memo
SUBJECT or RE: write a brief phrase that concisely describes the main content of your memo.
Place a horizontal line under your header block, and place your message below.
Memos look much like emails and are characterized by a simple header formatted as follows:
The message is then inserted here using the document design characteristics discussed in previous chapters.
In the “From:” field, handwrite your initials after your typed name to authenticate the document if you are to print the memo for distribution. “Re.” refers to “Regarding”. This term is used in technical workplaces instead of “Subject”, which we see in business memos. Having said this, some technical workplaces will replace “Re.” with “Subject”. You would include a concrete and specific Subject or Re. line. See the above Guidelines for Effective Professional Emails for more information about subject lines.
Figure 7.2.1 shows a sample of an “in-house” memo style, with annotations pointing out various relevant features. The main formatted portions of a memo are the Logo or Letterhead (optional), the Header Block, and the Message. The attached Memos PowerPoint reviews some of these features in detail.
Memo Message Structure
The length of a memo can range from a few short sentences to a multi-page report that includes figures, tables, and appendices. Whatever the length, there is a straightforward organizational principle you should follow. Organize the content of your memo so that it answers the following questions for the reader:
- Opening and background: Why do I have to read this and what are the circumstances leading to this message?
- Details: What do I need to know?
- Closing: What am I expected to do now?
Memos are generally very direct and concise. There is no need to start with general introductions before getting to your point. Your readers are colleagues within the same organization and are likely familiar with the context in which you are writing. Think of the message as building blocks:
This structure applies to longer email messages as well as letters. For more information on writing memos, check out the memo page on the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University: Parts of a Memo.
Letters are brief messages sent to recipients that are often outside the organization. They are often created using company letterhead templates and are generally limited to one or two pages. While email and text messages may be used more frequently today, the business letter remains a common form of written communication for formal, external matters. It can serve to introduce you to a potential employer, convey a project estimate to a client or partner, or announce or market a product or service, for example. Often, the letter format is used for short reports when more substantial information, like site observations, must be conveyed to an external party.
There are many types of letters, and many adaptations in terms of form and content, but this section covers the elements of a traditional block-style letter. Letters may serve to introduce your skills and qualifications to prospective employers (cover letter), deliver important or specific information, document an event or decision, or introduce an attached report or long document (letter of transmittal). Figure 7.2.2 shows a basic letter of transmittal meant to introduce a technical report to its recipient. Often, writers will include a paragraph acknowledging key individuals who have provided assistance.
A typical letter format has ten main parts (partially adapted from Cruthers, 2020):
- Letterhead/logo: Sender’s name and return address; often includes the company name and logo
- Date: Written in full
- The receiver’s block: Name, position, company, and address of the recipient
- Salutation: “Dear ______: ” use the recipient’s name, if known; use a colon for punctuation (this differs from email salutations which require a less formal comma). A common salutation may be “Dear Mr. (full name).” If you are unsure about titles (i.e., Mrs., Ms., Mr., Mx., Dr.), you may simply write the recipient’s name (e.g., “Dear Cameron Rai”) followed by a colon. The salutation “To whom it may concern” is appropriate for letters of recommendation or other letters that are intended to be read by any and all individuals. If this is not the case with your letter, but you are unsure of how to address your recipient, make every effort to find out to whom the letter should be specifically addressed. Avoid the use of impersonal salutations like “Dear Prospective Customer,” as the lack of personalization can alienate a future client.
- The introduction: Establishes the overall purpose of the letter. This is your opening paragraph, which may include an attention statement, a reference to the purpose of the document, and an introduction of the person or topic depending on the type of letter. An emphatic opening involves using the most significant or important element of the letter in the introduction. Readers tend to pay attention to openings, and it makes sense to outline the expectations for the reader up front. Just as you would preview your topic in a speech, the clear opening in your introductions establishes context and facilitates comprehension.
- The body: Articulates the details of the message: your explanation, technical details, a series of facts, or a number of questions belong in the body of your letter. Readers may skip over information in the body of your letter, so make sure you emphasize the key points clearly. You may choose organizational devices to draw attention, such as a bullet or numbered list. The body contains your core content, but brevity is important and so is clear support for the main point(s). Specific, meaningful information needs to be clear, concise, and accurate.
- The conclusion: Restates the main point and may include a call to action. It definitely should end with good will. An emphatic closing mirrors your introduction with the added element of tying the key points together, clearly demonstrating their relationship. The conclusion can serve to remind the reader, but should not introduce new information. A clear summary sentence will strengthen your writing and enhance your effectiveness. If your letter requests or implies action, the conclusion needs to make clear what you expect to happen. This paragraph reiterates the main points and their relationship to each other, reinforcing the main point or purpose.
- The signature block: Includes a complimentary close like “Sincerely,” space of about 4 line spaces for the signature, the sender’s name and role, along with company email address and phone extension. “Sincerely” or “Cordially” are standard business closing statements. Closing statements are normally placed one or two lines under the conclusion and include a hanging comma, as in Sincerely,
- Enclosure note: Just like an e-mail with an attachment, the letter sometimes has additional documents that are delivered with it. The Enclosure line indicates what the reader can look for in terms of documents included with the letter, such as brochures, reports, or related business documents. Only include this line if you are in fact including additional documentation.
- Complementary copies: The abbreviation “CC” once stood for carbon copies but now refers to complementary copies. Just like a “CC” option in an e-mail, it indicates the relevant parties that will also receive a copy of the document.
Keep in mind that letters represent you and your company in your absence. In order to communicate effectively and project a positive image, remember that
- your language should be clear, concise, specific, and respectful,
- each word should contribute to your purpose,
- each paragraph should focus on one idea,
- the parts of the letter should form a complete message, and
- the letter should be free of errors.
Letters with Specific Purposes
In a professional context, you may write letters for many possible reasons. Below is a list of the most common kinds of letters:
Transmittal Letters: When you send a report or some other document, such as a resumé, to an external audience, send it with a cover letter that contains a brief explanation of the purpose of the enclosed document and a summary of the document’s contents. Click the link to download a Letter-of-Transmittal-Template.
Letters of Confirmation: In certain formal circumstances such as in the case of a job offer or a formal invitation, it is customary to follow up with a message of confirmation formatted as a letter. You may send the letter attached to a brief email transmittal message. Using a separate letter signals your awareness of the context and shows your ability to adapt messages for specific situations.
Follow-up Letters: Any time you have asked someone to do something for you, write a follow-up letter expressing your appreciation for the time your letter recipient has taken to respond to your needs. If you have had a job interview, the follow-up letter thanking the interviewer(s) for their time is especially important for demonstrating your professionalism and attention to detail.
Letters within the professional context may take on many other purposes, such as communicating with suppliers, contractors, partner organizations, clients, government agencies, and so on. For additional examples of professional letters, take a look at the sample letters provided by David McMurrey in his online textbook on technical writing: Online Technical Writing: Examples, Cases & Models.
Some content in this chapter was adapted from the following source:
“Professional Communications” chapter in Technical Writing by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, Michele DeSilva. This source is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Bovee, C.L., Thill, J.V., & Scribner, J.A. (2016). Business communication essentials. 4th Canadian Edition. Toronto: Pearson Education, p. 127.
Cruthers, A. (2020). Writing letters. Business writing for everyone. https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/businesswriting/chapter/writing-letters/
[Email icon]. https://www.iconfinder.com/icons/4417125/%40_email_envelope_letter_icon. Free for commercial use.
Guffey, M. (2008). Essentials of business communication (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Hamlin, A., Rubio, C., & DeSilva, M. Technical writing. https://coccoer.pressbooks.com/chapter/professional-communications/. CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0Ha
Johansen, A. (n.d.). 10 netiquette rules to maintain and good online reputation. Norton. https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-kids-safety-what-is-netiquette.html
Khan, Md. M. (2015, December 20). Email etiquette. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/email-etiquette-mamun-khan
McMurrey, D. (1997-2017). Examples, cases, models. Online Technical Writing. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/models.html
Shapley, J. (2020, March 18). Distracted driving can be deadly. Put down the phone. The Houston Chronicle. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Distracted-driving-can-be-deadly-Put-down-the-15137381.php
[Texting image]. https://www.flickr.com/photos/13604571@N02/2094946972. CC BY-NC 2.0.
TheFiveNetwork. (2021). Professional Email Etiquette [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roJ7PBLdFts
Writing and Communication Centre. (n.d.). Writing Professional emails in the workplace. University of Waterloo. https://uwaterloo.ca/writing-and-communication-centre/resources-writing-professional-emails-workplace
Design features of a 1-page memorandum.
- The logo or letterhead is at the top of the page and centred or right-aligned (in this case, it is the University of Victoria letterhead).
- “Memorandum” appears at the top of the page left-aligned in large, bold font.
- The header block (which appears under the “Memorandum” heading) includes a “to,” “from,” “date,” and “subject” in a vertical list. Those values are aligned vertically for readability.
- A dividing line separates the header block from the message.
- The message begins by answering, “Why am I reading this?”
- The body of the message gives the details: (“What do I need to know?”)
- There is a table that is nicely formatted. (The table has a caption above the table in bold and italics, column headers are bold and centred, and text is left aligned.)
- A closing paragraph summarizes and indicates what (if any) action is expected of the reader (Answering, “What would you like me to do now?”)
- The text of this document uses an appropriate serif body font (Times New Roman)
- There is also a signature (optional)