Imagine this scenario – you need information and you start to write a formal email but you don’t know the person or organisation to which you are writing. How do you approach and build rapport with people or groups you have never met before?
I belong to a voluntary conservation group that has been active in my community for many years. We often receive requests from research students wanting assistance with their project or research. Occasionally these requests are not warmly received because the tone of the email may be unprofessional and background information may be lacking. In addition, the members are usually volunteers and it takes time and energy to respond. If the email is not clear and precise it may be put into the “too hard basket” or worse still, immediately deleted. Here are some tips which will hopefully make it easier for you to make a great first connection via email.
Hopefully, writing an email to an organisation is less threatening than writing to your supervisor!
Firstly, you must use an appropriate greeting, especially if this is your first point of contact. I would tend to keep it more formal in the first instance e.g. “Dear”, “Good morning”, or “Tēnā koutou” (3 or more people) instead of “hi”. This sets a respectful tone for the email.
Signing off an email can become a dilemma – formal or informal. Again I would stick to a slightly more formal salutation if this is your first contact with the person or group e.g. “Yours sincerely” (in Māori “Nāku iti noa, nā”) or ” Yours faithfully” (“Nāku, nā”).
Structuring an email
Just like an essay, your email needs some structure and basic information. Here are some pieces of information to include:
- A brief introduction or background – this sets the scene for the person engaging with you. Remember you are representing your university here. Don’t tell your life story.
- The aims of your research – what are you trying to achieve?
- What you need help with – don’t list a whole lot of questions here. Keep those for after the initial contact.
- Contact details.
- Attach an information sheet if you have one from your ethics application.
Language and spelling
This is really important. A well written email with correct grammar and spelling will impress your recipient and they will be more likely to help you with your research. If you use acronyms, then let the reader know what they mean as they may be new to them. Also, it’s best not to use slang in your email or words such as “OK’d” or “sayso”. Abbreviations are also not ideal e.g. write volunteer not “vol”. It is better to write full sentences than to use the type of language you would use in a text message.
Dos and Don’ts
- Do make the “Subject” line relevant and accurate so the recipient will open your email. It should genuinely reflect the content of your message.
- Do your homework and read up on a group’s homepage if they have one.
- Don’t make the email too long. It is better to attach an information sheet with the detail on it.
- Don’t use all capitals, coloured fonts or use silly typefaces.
- Do get a colleague to read your email before you send it.
Building rapport with a key person in a group, iwi or network may take time but may also have unexpected spin-offs for your research. Often, the secret is identifying that key person. Good luck!