Optimizing the Use of E-mail

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NOVEMBER 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.

Used 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 cost;
  • 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.

Used inappropriately or inefficiently, however, e-mail can create serious problems for individuals and organizations. For example:

  • 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.

Chan 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 work-related task.

Chan offers techniques for combating the common problem of compulsively checking e-mail:

  • 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 time.
  • 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.













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