Electronic mail (email or e-mail) is the exchange of digital messages through a network server.
A boon to business, email has made communication inexpensive, virtually instantaneous, and—most important—far less time consuming than regular mail or even the telephone. It permits immediate communication but also allows people to respond to messages at a convenient time instead of having to be present. Email reduces paperwork and enables more efficient, more rapid decision making.
Still, email can be a hindrance to business as well. Documentation becomes weak and incomplete because email is a shorthand form of communication. You might have trouble explaining or defending a decision if the record of it is a long chain of fragmentary emails. Because writers give much less thought to emails than to, say, traditional letters, messages can mislead recipients. The tone of an email can give the wrong impression.
But the main problem with email is the sheer quantity of it. Hundreds of billions of email messages are sent each day. Adding to the problem are instant messaging, texting, and streaming social-networking services such as Twitter. These services enable people to hold billions of conversations every day via text and images in real time anywhere they may be. Managing this tidal wave of information is a major productivity challenge for many people. For guidance, see MANAGING INFORMATION.
Despite these problems, email is essential to the high-tech business world. The following rules will help you write effective e-messages for these various media and avoid the pitfalls.
Using Email Effectively
Choose email when you want to communicate information rapidly and when the information is better conveyed digitally than by phone or hard (printed) copy.
Email is especially efficient when the persons you want to contact are unavailable. Email allows you to send the message so that it will be available when the recipients log in.
Electronic mail is also valuable when the data or information would be inconvenient to deliver in other ways. For instance, a long list of names, addresses, and phone numbers are time-consuming to dictate over the phone. Hard copy is, of course, an option, but hard copy might take several days to arrive if it has to go by outside mail or even through an internal mail system. A fax is another option, but it often requires the sender and receiver to go to fax stations somewhere else in their buildings.
Use the phone when you want to get immediate feedback or response to your message. For instance, if your message requires extra tact and the personal touch, use the phone. Email can seem cold and dismissive, for example, when the writer has to send unpleasant or negative messages.
Print and send hard copies when you want the recipient to have a record of your message. Email is not always delivered, and even an archived email can disappear for many reasons; so you will want to forward and retain hard copies of certain documents. For example, you might want to summarize a meeting where important departmental decisions were made. A second example would be personnel decisions, which potentially become part of an employee’s personnel file.
Write an informative subject line.
Enter your entire message in the subject line, if possible, so readers do not have to open your email. They will appreciate the convenience, and you will be more likely to get the result you want. One good practice is to type in EOM for “end of message,” signaling that there’s no need to open the email.
For longer emails, make sure your subject line will stand out from a long list of subject lines that appear on the reader’s screen. Hundreds of entries can confront a reader who calls up a list of emails. If your subject line doesn’t catch a reader’s attention, your file might never be opened!
Write subject lines that get your message across in a few words. See “Subject Line” in LETTERS.
- —Agenda for scoping meeting 10 p.m. Nov. 9
- —Review cost overruns of 20% on A-345 Prototype
- —Please sign divisional budget by July 5 EOM
- not this
- —Scoping meeting
- —Cost overruns
- —Divisional budget
Preview key content up front and limit your document to one screen (page) if possible.
If your message is long, list your conclusion and main points first so readers will know what is coming. Email readers do not like being forced to scroll through several screens to get to the point.
If possible, limit your document to one screen (page).
Whenever possible, design this one screen using emphasis techniques such as lists, headings, and single-sentence paragraphs. See EMPHASIS.
- We propose increasing the division’s supplemental budget for July by $15,000 to account for cost overruns on the XYZ project. Here’s why:
- Labor rates are going up from January through July.
- Several additional fact-finding trips will be needed during July.
- Managers are now very interested in XYZ.
- not this
- As you know, during the recent managerial coordination meeting (January 15), the subject of XYZ came up. Concerns expressed included the timing of the project, especially work during July. Also, the engineering representatives indicated that several extra trips might be necessary during July ...
For longer documents, consider writing a separate executive summary for the first page (screen) and then include other data as necessary. In many cases, the executive summary might be sufficient by itself, with the background or supporting data merely referenced or transmitted in hard copy to follow up the electronic version. See SUMMARIES.
Use business-appropriate tone of voice in an email.
Email invites informal language—unguarded, casual, and personal in tone. At the same time, you need to make sure that a too familiar or offhand tone of voice doesn’t offend readers. You should adopt a conversational, businesslike tone. See TONE.
Depending on your familiarity with the reader, you can vary your tone. Don’t be flippant, terse, or abrupt with someone you don’t know well and whose business you need.
- Thank you for the opportunity of submitting our ideas for your new artwork.
- not this
- Here’s the artwork you wanted.
Avoid using breezy abbreviations like “plz 4ward yr specs 4 new artwork.” Emailing a client is not the same as texting a close friend.
Avoid fancy fonts, patterned backgrounds, or gimmicky animations unless your branding requires them.
Review and revise (as necessary) your email before sending it to readers.
The immediacy of email is both its strength and its weakness. An important message will profit from review, both for errors and undesirable or misleading content. See WORD PROCESSING.
Depending on your potential readers, take time to clean up your email. A few minor errors will detract from the message; a glaring error or many errors will damage your credibility and the impact of your message.
Fix flagged misspellings, but remember that a spell check will often not identify wrong words (for example, there instead of their).
With all business documents—especially those written under time pressure or in anger—a cooling period has always been desirable. Consider allowing a cooling period before you send certain emails to recipients. Give yourself a few minutes (or longer) to reconsider a sensitive message. Often you will change the message, and sometimes you may even decide not to send it.
Signal clearly the end of your message.
Give your documents a quick, complimentary close—Sincerely, Thanks, See you Thursday, etc.
End a long email with a brief summary or review of the content. You might restate a request or a deadline, or you might even list again the reasons for your request.
If the end of the message is not obvious, signal it with EOM (end of message).
Automate your signature line, and include all the contact information a recipient needs to get in touch with you.
Control the distribution of your email.
Keep in mind that your email might be forwarded to others, so your audience is potentially larger than you think. Even messages marked private are easy to transfer to others and can spread around the world in seconds. If the email contains information you would not want others besides your addressee to read, don’t send it. Use a more private medium.
Don’t copy recipients unless they need to know the content of your email. People will learn to ignore your emails if they repeatedly get marginally relevant messages from you.
Don’t ask for “return receipt” (RR) unless you specifically need to know if the recipient received the message. Replying can be inconvenient and even intrusive to recipients.
When sending an email to a large group of recipients, say, your entire contact list, do not include them all in the “To:” field. Rather, address the email to yourself and then insert the large list in the “Bcc:” field (blind courtesy copy). There are several reasons for this:
- —Some recipients will reply to everyone on that lengthy list with their opinions, quips, or anecdotes, thus wasting people’s time.
- —Some recipients must abide by company policies about personal use of email. Receiving inappropriate email can be contrary to those policies.
- —Recipients concerned about the volume of spam messages and the danger of viruses do not want their email addresses exposed to the world.
When replying to an email, take care to send your reply to the proper audience. Is it only for the sender or for the entire group of addressees?
See LETTERS and MEMOS.
Using Social Media Effectively
Electronic media such as blogs, podcasts, and networking sites are now a primary means of communication and marketing. Unlike email, social media are usually open to any subscribers who want to participate. Many businesses and government agencies now sponsor online communities for the use of their clients and the interested public.
Unlike the old industrial media that communicated only one way, social media are ongoing conversations among organizations and their clients and communities. Websites, blogs, and community sites can be wonderful tools for promoting an organization.
Thus, business and technical professionals have a serious stake in the use of social media. Like other media, they can be used effectively or ineffectively—and can even become destructive.
Social media can severely hinder an organization’s success. People typically spend from half an hour to three hours during the workday accessing social media, wasting a tremendous amount of time and bandwidth. Also, frivolous, defamatory, or obscene blog entries or e-messages can cause you and your organization real trouble. One well-known restaurant chain suffered a good deal of bad publicity when an employee posted on the Internet a video of himself shoving French fries up his nose.
The following rules will help you use social media effectively:
Contribute value to the ongoing conversation of social media.
Social media encourage informal, spontaneous writing with little thought or planning behind it. As a result, much online content is banal or valueless. If you write online a blog entry or comment that represents your organization—as more and more people do—use the same thoughtful process you would follow for a more formal document (i.e., planning, revising, and so forth). See WRITING AND REVISING.
Consider carefully your purpose for writing. What is the job that needs to be done? Who will read this? What do you want readers to know, do, and feel? What kind of response do you want from them?
Follow high ethical standards in online conversations.
Social media invite anonymity. As a result, many people misuse the media to defame others or to spread falsehoods. Often inadvertently, people post misleading or confidential information.
Be honest, open, and respectful in online conversations. Correct inaccuracies as soon as possible. Know and strictly follow your organization’s policies governing disclosure of confidential information about people, financials, trade secrets, strategic initiatives, and intellectual property.
If you have any doubts about the appropriateness of your writing, ask a trusted colleague to review it with you.
Avoid being negative in a public online space. Private conversations can be taken offline.
Using Voice Mail Effectively
The main benefits of voice mail are to avoid “telephone tag” and to get your message across quickly and efficiently.
Be sure to identify yourself and give your listener the date, time, and your phone number.
Don’t assume that your listener will recognize your voice; also, not every system will automatically record the date, time, and your phone number. Give your phone number even if it’s listed; this way the respondent won’t have to look it up.
Think before you speak.
Take a minute before dialing to review mentally your main points and your intent in making the call—perhaps even jot a list of points to cover. Unless you do one or both of these things, you are likely to ramble and to confuse your listener. Rambling is a problem if you are limited in the time you have to record your message.
Speak clearly and repeat important information.
Misunderstandings are inevitable, so work to reduce them in your recorded messages. Speak clearly and slightly slower than you would normally. As necessary, spell out difficult words—for example, people’s names or the names of places, because names often have unusual spellings. Technical terms and associated numbers are also easy for a listener to confuse.
Repetition of meeting times, deadlines, and other important details is a courtesy. You might, for example, conclude by repeating your key request or recommendation, including any associated date or meeting time. See REPETITION.