Formal emails are required for certain interactions and certain situations. They need to be polished. They need to be professional. And they need to be competently put together.
That’s a tall order, especially if you’re not used to writing in a formal way.
And of course, you don’t want to look like a buffoon in front of a boss, or a client, or a prospect.
But don’t worry. I’ve got your back. In this guide, I’ll show you how to write a formal email, including the basics of formal email writing and some examples of real-world formal emails you can use to model your own work.
Table of Contents
- When to Write a Formal Email
- What Makes an Email “Formal?”
- Elements of a Formal Email
- How to Write a Formal Email: 5 Other Tips
- Examples of Formal Emails
When to Write a Formal Email
First things first.
When should you write a formal email?
I’m not talking about timing your email, though that may be an important consideration depending on the context.
Instead, I mean: when do the circumstances demand a formal email?
- Audience. One of your biggest considerations is going to be your audience. To whom are you writing, and how much do they care about this kind of thing? Generally speaking, if you’re writing to a superior, to a client/prospect, or to someone you don’t know, you should speak formally. Additionally, speaking to a large group usually demands formality.
- Character. What kind of image are you trying to present? Are you writing as an individual or on behalf of the company? If you’re writing as the voice of the company, formality is almost always required. Otherwise, are you trying to be friendly and casual, or trying to be taken seriously? Use your best judgment here.
- Reason for the email. Finally, consider the reason for the email. Are you making a big request? Are you making an apology? Are you announcing something? Are you making an introduction? These topics all require some formality. Are you sharing a meme? Are you asking a friend to lunch? Are you continuing a loosely flowing email thread? Formality isn’t as important here.
If you’re not sure whether the situation demands a formal email or not, err on the side of formality. Better to write a formal email and not need it than to be too casual when a formal email was warranted.
What Makes an Email “Formal?”
Okay. So sometimes, we need formal emails.
But what does “formal” mean?
The boring definition is that “formal” indicates professionalism.
Professionalism is conveyed through the following elements of your email:
Formal emails tend to be somewhat rigidly structured. They follow all those unspoken email rules, and they look good when you zoom out. They’re easy to read and follow. They don’t go on too long. And of course, they use standard email greetings, closings, and other structural elements.
The tone of the email conveys a certain attitude, and that attitude may range from formal to casual. Subtle differences in your presentation can totally change the tone, and therefore the formality, of your message. Consider: “I am pleased with your performance” vs. “yo that was cash money of you bro.”
The words you choose can also affect the formality of your message. Eliminating contractions, swear words, and slang terms can almost instantly make your email more formal. Choosing bigger words might not make your email better received (especially if you use them wrong), but making deliberate, specific word choices can elevate your message.
Elements of a Formal Email
You can detect the formality of an email across many different elements of the email.
Let’s take a look:
1. The subject line.
Everything starts with the subject line. Here’s an easy tip for making an email formal: don’t leave the subject line blank. You also shouldn’t try to crack a joke or experiment with some avant-garde subject line formula. Instead, just stick with what works. Keep it simple, concise, and to the point. If your email is about Q4 earnings, use some variation of “Q4 Earnings Report” as your subject line. Don’t add more than necessary, and make it obvious what the message is going to be about.
2. The greeting.
Next, think about the greeting. Here, your best bet is to use a person’s title—especially if you don’t know them. “Dear Mr. Gates” works a lot better than “Hey Bill!” for conveying a formal tone. There are many potential greeting words and phrases to consider here, such as “Dear,” “Hello,” or “Attention,” so don’t worry too much about them. Instead, just make sure you’re not too friendly or jokey.
3. The body.
The body of the message is where everything comes together. Try to keep your writing concise and keep the email itself to just a few sentences when possible. If you have a lot of information to recap, use a structured form like bullet points or a numbered list to keep things organized. Otherwise, make use of space to keep your message readable.
4. The closing.
Use a sentence or two at the end of your email to summarize it and/or to let your audience know what’s going to happen next. A quick statement like “Please let me know,” or “I look forward to speaking with you in person” can tie things up with a nice, formal bow. Again, don’t be superfluous here; keep things concise.
5. The signature.
Finally, you’ll need to include your signature. If you’ve created the perfect signature already, you won’t need to worry about this. Otherwise, use a simple closing message like “Sincerely,” or “Best regards,” and include your full name.
How to Write a Formal Email: 5 Other Tips
I’ve got some other tips for how to write a formal email as well.
They didn’t fit into the descriptions above, so here goes:
1. Check your sending info.
Before you hit send—no, before you even draft the message—take a second to review your sending info. What email address are your recipients going to see? Make sure you’re not accidentally sending from your “firstname.lastname@example.org” email address, and make sure if you have a name or headshot associated with your account that they look and sound professional. You don’t want something little like this to ruin all your work, do you?
2. Choose one topic and stay on it.
In a casual email, it’s okay to meander. It’s okay to ramble a bit. It’s okay to cover a few different topics at once. But in a formal environment, each email should only have one topic. Choose the topic for this message and stay on that topic when drafting it. If you think of something else you want to say, or if you’re reminded of another message to include, consider drafting a separate message for it.
3. Select the right font.
Formal emails aren’t the time to goof off with experimental font choices. Chances are, the default font in your email platform is just fine. Something like Calibri or Times New Roman will do well. Just double check it before you hit send, and ensure your writing is easy to read.
4. Pay attention to your structuring.
When crafting the body of your message, look at how you’re structuring your core content. Are you writing in concise, direct sentences? Are you separating your sentences and paragraphs to ensure readability? Are you harnessing the power of bulleted lists, numbered lists, bold, italics, and other elements to make things even clearer?
Seriously. I’m not kidding. A single typo, if cringey enough, could ruin the tone of your entire email. Proofread your work for grammatical, syntactical, and above all else spelling errors. Double-check the spelling of your recipient’s name. Then get someone else to proofread it, just to be sure.
Examples of Formal Emails
Enough with the talk. Let’s see these tips in action!
1. Dealing with a client issue
Subject: Our apologies on your recent order
Dear Mr. Blankenship,
I am very sorry to hear about the delay in your order, and I empathize with your frustration. I am following up with our team now to see if there’s any way we can expedite the process. I am also making efforts to ensure this situation never happens again.
In the meantime, I am prepared to offer you a partial refund on your order, and a discount of 15 percent off your next purchase with us.
Please accept my apologies and let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.
2. Making an announcement to the team
Subject: Q3 sales: We did it!
I am pleased to announce that we have achieved our quarterly goal of reaching $500,000 in sales. Congratulations are in order.
I am impressed with the extra work you have all put in to make this happen. You will each be receiving a bonus proportional to the sales you have achieved; we are currently discussing the specifics.
Look forward to hearing from us soon, and keep up the great work!
Thank you,[your name]
3. Following up with a prospect
Subject: Following up
Good morning Mrs. Reid,
We met at the Young Entrepreneurs meetup a few weeks ago, and I wanted to follow up with you. You expressed interest in seeing a demo of our product, which can help you work 25 percent more efficiently.
Are you free this Wednesday for a 30-minute call? Let me know!
Best regards,[your name]
Are you interested in mastering the art of professional email? See our guide on how to write a professional email.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.