Email etiquette 101 declares that anyone composing a message should be careful about how their words can be misinterpreted by a reader. When looking at a computer screen, the reader doesn’t know what you intended and can’t hear the tone of your (imaginary) voice. In person you might jokingly say to a colleague, “You’re dumb!” but via email “you’re dumb” doesn’t automatically read as playful. It can be downright rude.
Welcome to the world of digital communications, where what you write and what is read can be worlds apart. For example, typing in all capital letters is considered rude, as though you’re screaming at the reader, even if you were just expressing excitement. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” can feel a lot more accusatory than a calmer, “What are you doing?”
Of course, you know this. Or at least you should know it, as we and thousands of other people have written about it at length. Common email etiquette hasn’t changed much, but people seem to forget that the email signature at the bottom of the page needs just as much attention as the rest of the message. The content of your message should certainly be the focal point of your email, but the signature might be the last thing the readers sees and ultimately the one thing they remember about your email – or even you.
What a signature should do
According to “The Etiquette Book: A complete guide to modern manners” by Jodi R.R. Smith, signatures serve a simple but essential function.
“Unless you are emailing a friend or coworker, do not assume that the recipient will know exactly who you are or, if sending a business message, be familiar with your organization,” cautions Smith. “You may need to specifically identify yourself toward the beginning of the body of the email and/or include your title and company name as part of your signature.”
Good advice, and something that’s easy to forget in today’s world. The number of emails sent per day varies depending on the source, but they all point to an excess of 200 billion emails. Yes, 200,000,000,000. That’s a lot of forwarded chainmail and links to videos of kittens playing in cardboard boxes. Email is so second nature to many workers that they forget the formalities of introduction that you don’t take for granted when meeting someone for the first time in person.
Smith believes an email signature should have a few key elements:
- Full name
- Company name
- Job title or division
- Mailing address
- Telephone number
- Company website
- Social media links
- Email address
The problem that arises is that all of that information can make your signature longer than the message and take up half the screen. You should be the judge of what information is pertinent to your readers and include it.
What a signature shouldn’t do
What you shouldn’t do, however, is go overboard with information. A few signature items can make you seem unprofessional or just downright strange. Elements you should be wary of including are:
- Pictures (of yourself or anybody or anything, really)
- A variety of fonts
- Moving or flashing text
- Potentially offensive quotes
- Embedded video or sounds that play automatically
- A list of formal titles and certifications that read like alphabet soup (unless essential to your job)
- Legal disclaimers that are irrelevant to the message. (See an excellent post on the topic at Lawyerist.com)
When she heard I was working on this story, one reader forwarded me an email signature that takes up 20 lines of a message. It has no fewer than a dozen links in it, one which goes to the sender’s website, another for a social media account, and the rest are for examples of the sender’s portfolio. If the sender’s website is comprehensive, that single link could take care of the rest of the information that is crammed in the signature.
When you’re composing your next email signature (or frantically editing your current one after reading this), keep the above tips in mind and think about your reader.
Some people even have fun with their signatures. The ubiquitous “Sent from my…” messages that are tacked on to many smartphone emails seem to be the easiest way to get a giggle out of a reader.
George Burke, founder and CEO of ebook-lending site eBookFling, decided to mock his iPhone’s AutoCorrect feature by signing off, “Soryr fro typos. Setn by iPhone.”
Blogger Jessica Gottlieb remembers the funniest email signature she received: “Sent from my iPhone, in real life I know how to spell.”
At public relations group Outside media, Sammi Johnson says she and her colleagues put quotes from fictitious “Saturday Night Live” inspirational writer Jack Handy in their quotes. One employee’s signature is, “Contrary to what most people say the most dangerous animal in the world is not the lion or the tiger or even elephant. It’s a shark riding on an elephant’s back, just trampling and eating everything they see.”
What are your thoughts on email signatures? A bunch of text that you ignore anyway or something that people pay attention to?