Egad! Another E-Mail!
Using E-Mail Sensibly
By Philip Vassallo
Have you sat on the receiving end of an e-mail with a recipient list running as long as your local highway? Have you then struggled through its overlong, cryptic prose and twisted logic only to realize you have received a message whose business does not concern you?
Or have you suffered bizarre formatting, emotions and smileys so puzzling that you’ve felt either like a dinosaur in the e-communication community or like sending a virus to the sender’s computer?
With this problem in mind, here are suggestions to increase the effectiveness of your and your organization’s e-mail writing.
What to Think
Remember confidentiality. If you have any doubt that the confidentiality of your subject will be compromised through e-mail, then trust your instincts. Find some other form of communication.
Know who owns the writing. If you work from a company-owned computer or use your company’s e-mail address, then the company holds responsibility for what you read and what you write on it. Of course, your company in turn holds you responsible. In most cases, you have already signed an agreement attesting to this fact when you began your employment. Honoring that agreement is as critical as any other of your professional obligations.
Consider whether e-mail is the best way to reply. Just because you received e-mail doesn’t mean that you must respond in kind. A phone call or walk down the hall may be preferable. If format matters for a particular document, then control that format with a word-processing program and mail a hard copy or attach to e-mail the precise file.
Know your audience. Know that all your readers may not know what you do. Consider whether your e-mail will circulate among people a few steps removed from the issue you are addressing. Have sensitivity for readers unaware of your jargon and acronyms. Be especially sensitive to non-native or non-technical readers who may not understand slang, idioms and acronyms.
Keep the message strictly business. When a message or situation angers you, resist the temptation to fire off a “nastygram.” Write whatever you’d like, but don’t press the send button. Let some time pass, reread the message for tone problems, edit accordingly and then transmit a message that speaks well of your organization. While we’re on the subject of emotion, keep “J” out of your professional e-mail. (I know: I’m a killjoy.)
What to Do
Keep the purpose in mind—and only one purpose. State your purpose clearly. (Examples: “Below are the six requirements our summer intern must meet.” or “Here is the root-cause analysis of the battery explosion in our Medina plant on August 23.”) And cover only one topic per message. Do not, for instance, congratulate Jenny for winning the employee-of-the-month award in an e-mail proposing that your group purchase an XYZ.
Preview your purpose in the subject line. Help your readers to better manage their e-mail and to focus on your purpose by getting to the point. Write “Re: Proposal on Purchasing an XYZ” rather than simply “XYZ.”
Send your message only to people who need it. Don’t e-mail every man, woman and child on earth. Every e-mail creates work for every recipient. If you think that only four people on your list of 40 need the message, then take the extra 14 seconds to send only the four your message.
Keep fonts simple. Use basic font types, styles, sizes and colors. Visual gimmicks will only detract from your message. So will the use of all upper case letters, which suggest that the writer is shouting.
Limit attachments. Decide which transmission method (express mail, first-class mail, fax or e-mail) best helps your reader. Occasionally, some users cannot download multiple attachments. Before sending a lengthy document, ask your readers how they’d like to receive it.
Guide your reader through forwarded e-mail and attachments. A single sentence describing the forwarded or attached message will often do the job. Examples: (“Kelly wanted you to get the message below about changes in our agenda for next week’s meeting.” or “Page 4 of the attached file describes the project plan we discussed last week.”)
Follow the rules of standard English. If you know them, use them; if you don’t, learn them. Treat e-mail as you would a business memo or letter.
Remember the structure. Limit the length of paragraphs by holding fast to the one-idea-per-paragraph rule. Use headings and bullets where helpful. Even in brief messages, strive for a PDF structure: an opening with a purpose, middle with the details, and a follow-through with the next steps.
Below are examples of how PDF would look in an e-mail request and an e-mail response.
E-MAIL SAMPLE: REQUEST
Re: September 28 Training
Date: 8:52 a.m. EDT 02-9-25
Purpose: I will attend your September 28 e-mail training seminar and have two questions about the course materials:
Details: 1. What materials should I bring to the seminar?
2. What materials will I take from the seminar?
Follow-through: If a voicemail response is more convenient, please leave a message at 212-468-7531. I appreciate your help and look forward to meeting you at the seminar.
E-MAIL SAMPLE: RESPONSE
Re: September 28 Training
Date: 10:10 p.m. EDT 02-9-25
From: email@example.com (Phil Vassallo)
To: LeeLee@ anywhere.com (Lee Lee)
Purpose: Thanks for your interest in our September 28 e-mail seminar. I’m pleased to give you below the information you requested:
Details: Items to Bring
• notebook for writing key reference points
• pen or pencil for taking notes
Items to Take
• Writing Effective E-Mail, the manual used during training
• “U-Mail, I-Mail—More Effective Business E-Mail,” an article offering helpful e-mail tips
Follow-through: If you need more information, please e-mail me again. I’ll see you at the seminar!
Managing the Mayhem
Maintaining copy lists and e-mail folders grows increasingly complex with the job. Building lists in the hundreds and filed messages in the thousands happens remarkably fast. Spring cleaning isn’t enough; even winter, spring, summer and fall cleaning may not be enough. If you’re not saving time and money by using e-mail, then it’s time to rethink how you use this method of communication. Make it your servant - resist becoming its slave.
Philip Vassallo, Ed.D., is a writer and writing consultant for the Center for Financial Training New Jersey. Visit his Web site, www.PhilVassallo.com, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.