the Use of E-mail
2005 - In addition to changing how we do business, e-mail
has begun to define how we are viewed, says consultant and
author Janis Fisher Chan (E-Mail: A Write It Well Guide—How
to Write and Manage E-Mail in the Workplace; Write It Well,
2005, $21.99). She recognizes that business relationships
based largely or entirely on e-mail are increasingly common.
The words we write have become very real representations of
our companies and ourselves.
appropriately, e-mail lets businesspeople do the following:
Reduce telephone tag;
Convey information and get responses to questions more
quickly, easily, and informally than by mailing a letter
or sending a fax or interoffice memo;
Send large documents (as e-mail attachments) over long
distances in moments rather than days, and at a lower
Keep a lot of people informed by easily conveying one
message to many people simultaneously;
Reduce the need for meetings where the only purpose is
to share information;
Communicate efficiently with people who work in other
locations, especially other time zones;
Make better decisions by involving more people in generating
ideas and providing information; and
Maintain written records of discussions, decisions, agreements,
and the dissemination of information.
inappropriately or inefficiently, however, e-mail can create
serious problems for individuals and organizations. For
Reduced productivity from unplanned, poorly written messages
that fail to convey information clearly;
Loss of credibility, due to messages with poor grammar,
punctuation, and spelling;
Offensive content and tone that can damage relationships
and result in lawsuits;
Loss of confidentiality when e-mail is used to convey
private or proprietary information;
Misunderstandings that occur because the body language,
facial expressions, and tone of voice that help people
interpret a message are missing; and
Time wasted writing, reading, and responding to e-mail
that did not need to be sent, searching for lost messages,
or compulsively checking for new mail.
offers the following tips:
Use the journalist’s “inverted pyramid”
method to get to the point fast. The first paragraph of
a newspaper article contains the most important information,
and the rest of the article provides details that support,
explain, expand on, or illustrate that information. To
figure out the main point, imagine that you and your reader
are riding the elevator together. You have 15 seconds
to state your message before the doors open and the reader
gets off. What would you say?
Make the subject line a headline. A well-written subject
line is like a good newspaper headline: informative and
compelling, drawing the reader’s attention, summarizing
what the e-mail is about, and giving the reader a reason
to open the message. Instead of “New Program,”
write “Accepting Applications for Flex-time Program.”
Instead of “Dates,” write “Tax-Season
Planning Meeting: Nov. 2, 6, or 9?”
Combat attention deficit disorder by controlling the habit
of reflexively checking and responding to e-mail as soon
as it arrives, thus failing to stay focused on a single
offers techniques for combating the common problem of compulsively
Turn off your computer’s signal for incoming mail.
Unless something important is expected, check e-mail only
at certain times.
Instead of responding to every message as it arrives,
begin and save drafts to complete and send at a scheduled
Don’t check e-mail while talking on the phone. Both
activities will suffer.
Remove temptation. Take work into a conference room or
library, or go to a coffee shop. If a laptop is needed,
don’t connect it to the Internet.
Checking e-mail should be a purposeful activity. Don’t
check e-mail solely out of boredom. Take a break if needed.
Because people forward e-mails to others, anyone might
eventually see a message. Therefore, keep it professional
even when writing to work friends. Resist the temptation
to be sloppy or overly casual.
Use active language. It presents a professional image
and gets the point across quickly. Active language is
energetic and clear, while passive language weakens the
writing and confuses readers.
Recognize that sometimes e-mail is not the best medium
for every message. Think carefully about possible consequences
whenever the following must be communicated:
Confidential or private information. People other than
the intended recipient may see the e-mail. Think about
what might happen if someone published that information
in the newspaper.
Sensitive topics. Without the clues from facial expressions,
body language, or tone of voice, it is difficult to tell
whether the message is hurtful or offensive to the reader.
Humor. The casual quality of e-mail makes it easy to forget
that it can be the wrong place for jokes. Things that
seem funny to one person could offend others, not to mention
getting the sender or the organization into trouble.
Complex information. Don’t send complex information,
such as a detailed report, in the body of an e-mail. It’s
hard to read on screen, and formatting can be lost. Instead,
send it as an attachment.