Effective use of e-mail

E-mail is still the numero uno Internet service. Discover how to make your e-mail messages count for personal as well as business communication.

Electronic communication, due to its speed and broadcasting ability, is fundamentally different from paper-based communication such as letters and memos. Because the other person’s response time capability is so fast, e-mail is more “conversational” than traditional methods of communication.

In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a chance to ask for clarification. With e-mail documents, your recipient can ask questions immediately. E-mail, therefore, like conversational speech, tends to be much sloppier and more ambiguous.

This is not always bad. It might not be a worthwhile expenditure of energy to slave over a message, making sure that your spelling is faultless, your words eloquent, your grammar and punctuation are beyond reproach, if the point of the message is simply to inform the recipient that you are ready to go to lunch.

Granted, you should put some effort into ensuring that your subjects agree with your verbs, words are spelled correctly, avoid the mixing of metaphors, and so on. However, if “The Rules” laid down in your ninth-grade English class get in the way of effective communication, throw them out.

Due to the lack of vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment, e-mail is not as rich a communication method as a face-to-face or even a telephone conversation. Your recipient may have difficulty telling if you are being serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric.

Thus, your e-mail compositions should be different from both your speech and paper compositions. There are a number of documents on electronic e-mail commercially available, but they mostly address the “nuts and bolts” of how to get text from your fingers to your correspondent’s screen. Those that do discuss e-mail content tend to be really brief on the subject of e-mail style, and provide little motivation for why its so important that the style be different.

With e-mail, you cannot assume anything about your correspondent’s location, time, frame of mind, mood, health, marital status, affluence, age, or gender. This means, among other things, that you need to be very, very careful in phrasing your communications in order to prevent misunderstandings.

The first important point to remember is that spelling counts, grammar counts, pretty counts, in fact, everything counts. An e-mail represents you, your message, your point of view, your ethics and your very integrity in your physical absence. What the recipient receives says a lot about you. The question you need to ask yourself is is this how I would want the reader to perceive me if we were meeting face-to-face?

If the image is wrong, change your e-mail. Also, remember that, while some mailer programs have spelling checkers, they detect only misspelled words. They are of no value if you use the wrong word.

Never forget that there is a real person on the other end reading and reacting to what you have written. Just as in a face-to-face meeting, first impressions are important.

A subject line that directly relates to the e-mail body is the fastest way to let people know what your e-mail message is about. The subject line should be brief because many mailers will truncate long subject lines. It does not need to be a complete sentence, but should obviously pertain to the information in your e-mail.

If you are responding to an -mail, your mailer program should preface the subject line with “Re:” or “RE:” (for Regarding). If your mailer program does not automatically do this, it is considered good form to insert “RE:” into the subject line.

If you are sending non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with “FYI:” (For Your Information) will immediately inform the recipient that no action is required.

For time-critical messages, starting the subject line with “URGENT:” is probably the best way to get the recipient’s attention — especially if you know that person receives a lot of e-mail.

When you are requesting information or anything else, starting the subject line with “REQ:” (Request) will inform the recipient that some action is probably required on his or her part.

If you are referring to a previously received e-mail, you should explicitly quote that document to provide context. For example, instead of sending an e-mail that says:
” Yes”
Are you available to meet with the auditors next Friday?

Displays on a computer screen will very often look different than on paper, and people generally find it harder to read anything on a screen than on when printed on paper. In fact, many people actually print out their e-mail so they can read it. The screen’s resolution is not as good as paper, oftentimes there is a flicker, the screen’s font may be smaller (or ugly) or the color combinations may be absolutely atrocious. Your recipient’s mail reader may also impose certain constraints on the formatting of received e-mail messages. All of these items lead to the conclusion that a “good” e-mail page layout is different from a good paper document page layout.

Write Shorter Paragraphs
In addition to the above-mentioned problems, frequently the e-mail message will be read in a document window using scrollbars. While scrollbars are great, it makes it harder to visually track long paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to include only two or three sentences in each. It will make reading much easier for the recipient.

Trim Line Length
Several of the software packages currently used to read e-mail do not automatically wrap words (i.e., adjust line and word spacing). This means that if the software you use to send e-mail wraps your words for you and your recipient’s does not, your recipient may end up with a message that is highly fragmented and extremely difficult to read – even when printed out. It is even worse with some e-mail readers in that they truncate everything past the 80th character. This is certainly not the way to win friends and influence people.

A good “rule of thumb” is to keep your lines under 75 characters long. Why 75 and not 80? Because you should leave some room for indentation or quote marks for your correspondent in case he or she is going to quote a piece of your original e-mail in a reply.

Be Terse With Your Prose
We spend anywhere from 12 to 20 years being rewarded for being verbose in our written communications. Unfortunately, this is not appropriate for e-mail. While your message should be as clear as possible, remember that if they want more information, they can always ask for it. Also, remember that in some places, users are charged by the byte and/or have limits on how much disk space their e-mail can use. If you become verbose, you are quite possibly costing your recipient money – and that is never appreciated.

One Page, Please
It’s also a good “rule of thumb” to try to keep everything on one “page” whenever possible. In most cases, this means about twenty-five lines of text.

“Attach” Longer Messages
Some mailer programs support “attachments,” where you can specify a document or even a file to send along with your e-mail. If the recipient has a e-mail reader that can handle attachments, this is an excellent tool as a long attachment can be looked at later off-line. However, if the recipient’s e-mail reader cannot handle attachments, and you send a non-ASCII file (e.g., a Word document, a binary file, a picture, compressed text, etc.), be advised that it will be displayed as garbage.

While you cannot make your voice higher or lower, louder or softer to denote emphasis, there are techniques used by many people to convey vocal inflection. For example, you can indicate:

Light Emphasis – If you want to give something mild emphasis, you can enclose it in asterisks. This is the moral equivalent of italics in a paper document. (Example: I will finish by this *Friday*.)
Another techniques is to capitalize the first letter only of words to give light emphasis. (Example: While we try to avoid that scenario, it is not Cast In Stone.)

Strong Emphasis – If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. (Example: Be sure to disconnect the battery or it might EXPLODE!!!)

Note that you should use capital letters sparingly as the world e-mail community has come to understand such usage indicates that you are shouting. It is totally inappropriate, and considered to be quite rude, to use all capital letters in a situation when you are calm. (Example: WHEN YOU GET TO JACKSON BE SURE TO GIVE ME A CALL OR DROP BY AS I AM ALWAYS AT HOME.)

Gestures – While you are unable to accompany your words with hand or facial gestures, there are several ASCII stand-ins for gestures.

A facial gestures can be represented with “smiley”: an ASCII drawing of a facial expression. The three most commonly used are:

To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look at them sideways. After a while, they actually begin to make sense.

There are a wide range of ASCII gestures available to you, from ill %^P to angry >:-< to astonished :-o, and limited only by your imagination. In fact, some budding entrepreneur has created an entire “Smiley Dictionary” just in case you feel uncreative.

Instead of writing: I am very confused and a little upset. Why did you give my report to Jack instead of Jill?
You could write: ???!??! Why did you give my report to Jack instead of Jill?!?

The question mark is shorthand for a furrowed brow or a “huh?”. The exclamation mark is shorthand for amazement and possibly a scowl. The two together are taken to mean astonishment.

There is also a long and proud tradition of using punctuation as a placeholder for “venting steam,” e.g., #%&#$*!

The whole point of e-mail is to communicate a message quickly, easily and clearly. While you should conform to the parameters and form of “good English,” do let such usage take the place of common sense.

Use meaningful subject lines in order to get your recipient’s attention. Write short, easy-to-read sentences. Remember. the average newspaper is written for someone with a seventh-grade education. Avoid pronouns be specific. Save your multi-polysyllabic diatribe for your college term papers. Write short paragraphs. Leave plenty of “white space” in order to make reading easier. If you have any control over your mailer program, avoid outrageous coloring and hard-to-read screen display fonts.

Most of all, the most important advice is to read your e-mail message, re-read it and re-read it again to make absolutely sure it says exactly what you want it to say.

“Are you in control, or are you controlled by destiny or bureaucrats?”