Outlook Email Tips: 4 Ways to Improve Your Email Formatting

A computer with Outlook email messages flying toward it

The vast majority of business communication happens by email. Administrative professionals, in particular, write dozens each day — in fact, some days, it may feel like you do nothing but send and receive emails. But have you ever stopped to think about how your emails look to the recipient, and what impression your email formatting and appearance might be sending? The bottom line is that your emails should be as professional as you are. Less-than-presentable emails reflect poorly on you and your organization. Worse yet, because the recipient likely has an overflowing inbox, your emails may not get the attention they deserve if your email formatting is shoddy.

We've got several email tips to help you design and compose emails in Outlook (or other popular programs) that look good and get read.

1. Start with a strong email subject line

Composing an effective email begins with the subject line. Think about it before you even get to the body of the message. Keep in mind that your subject line plays a big part in whether or not your email is noticed and opened. Here's what you need to know about writing a good email subject line:

  • Be specific about what your message refers to. For example, something vague like "Report" could mean a number of things. And if your colleague or boss needs to locate your email later, it could be hard to find the exact message without more detail. "Question about report formatting" is a better, more helpful subject line.
  • Tell the reader what you want him or her to do. Adding "Please reply," "For review" or even "FYI" to the beginning of your subject ensures your needs are clearly communicated.
  • If you have a new topic to discuss, don’t just keep hitting Reply to an old conversation thread. Start a new email chain with a new, clearly defined subject line.
  • If an urgent reply is needed, mention that in the subject line to prompt a timely response.
  • A typical inbox shows about 50 to 60 characters of an email subject line. Mobile phones — which more and more professionals use to check their email — may show just half that number of characters. So pay attention to the length of your subject line, and put the most important words at the beginning to make sure they’re not cut off.

Relying on clear, concise subject lines is one way to keep up with the flood of messages received each day. Learn more email tips for managing your inbox and helping others do the same.

2. Adjust Outlook email settings for easy reading

A recipient will begin to form an impression based on your email formatting, including the font, text size and colors you use. Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for readers to scan and digest the contents of your message. Here are some email formatting tips:

  • Studies show that sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, Helvetica and Verdana, work best for emails because they are easy to read on computer and mobile screens.
  • When choosing a font color, stick with a safe choice, like black, and avoid colors that may be difficult or annoying to read, like yellow or orange.
  • Don’t go below 10-point font. Smaller font is simply too hard to read for many people, especially if they're using a mobile phone.
  • Keep in mind that the best background for emails is none at all. Having no background color or pattern is best for legibility and professionalism. Save the creative backgrounds for your personal email

You can change the text in an Outlook email by clicking the Format Text tab and then Change Styles. Choose the text format you want from the -down menu that includes Style Set, ColorsFonts and Paragraph Spacing options. If you select Set as Default, the email formatting settings you choose for the text will be applied to all new messages.

The Font Abuser is just one type of annoying email communicator. Learn about others who don't communicate effectively via email — and make sure you're not one of them.

3. Present your words clearly

No matter how perfect your email formatting or how enticing your subject line, your Outlook email will probably not get the attention you think it deserves if all the information appears in a large, unmanageable chunk on the screen. Make your emails more manageable by making them scannable. Here's how:

  • Use bullets when presenting a long list of information. It's easier to see each point this way.
  • Bold sections or words that you want to emphasize. Your reader's eyes will naturally go straight to these areas. Just be careful not to overdo it. Bold works best when used sparingly.
  • Break the text into very short paragraphs. Big blocks of text seem intimidating and overwhelming, and readers have a tendency to skip over theses sections. The effect is magnified on smaller screens.
  • Overall, short emails are best. If you need to convey a lot of information in a single email, use subheads to break things up and organize your thoughts.

Feel like you've crafted the perfect Outlook email but still haven't received a reply? Find out how to address this common email issue and four others.

4. Sign off with style by using an email signature

A well-crafted signature places your personal stamp on an email. To create one, start a new Outlook email and click the Insert tab in the header ribbon, then select Signature. Click Signatures from the pull-down menu. A window will come up where you can manage all your email signatures.

Clicking New allows you to create and name one so you can differentiate it from others you may create in the future. Enter your information in the text box and then format it by choosing any of the options from the toolbar.

Here are a few additional tips for creating an Outlook email signature that sings:

  • Keep your signature relatively short by limiting it to just three or four lines. You should include your name, title, company, email address and phone number.
  • If you're active on social media, include links to your accounts. You can use icons and add hyperlinks to save space and make your email formatting look fresher.
  • Some people like to add an image to their email signature, whether that's a headshot, company logo or award badge. Include these elements as appropriate, but don't go crazy.
  • You can have a little more fun with your signature than the body of your email. It's OK to show your personality with more playful fonts or colors. But, again, moderation is key.
  • Create customized signatures for the various audiences you communicate with in your administrative job. For example, you might shorten the email signature you use for internal contacts by removing the company name and your email address. Or you might include your mobile phone number in the email signature you use when communicating with your boss.

Ready for advanced email tips? Check out our list Microsoft Outlook shortcuts to pack more productivity into your workday.

You'd be surprised at how much of a difference a few simple changes to your Outlook email habits can make. Following best practices such as these will serve to strengthen your communication skills and relationships with colleagues.

Discover other ways to use Outlook in your administrative job

This post was originally published in September 2014 and has been updated to reflect more current information.