How to Use eMail
Forward by Alexander Graham Bell
I would like to thank Travel’n Person for allowing me to introduce his guide to E-Mail. As you know, my invention, the ‘Telephone’, revolutionized communications. E-Mail is almost as great an invention but I am troubled by the lack of discipline with which it is used. I see this as a cause and effect problem. Telephone calls cost money, therefore people think about what they are going to say before placing a call. E-Mail costs nothing, so people just send messages willy-nilly and think nothing of it. Now if everyone had to pay me a nominal fee for each E-Mail message sent, I’m certain it would cut down on traffic over the internet.
Why we need a guide?
In the modern day organization people can be spread across the map, in different time zones, traveling, and working at various locations. We depend on E-Mail more than other methods of communication. Like any tool, we should learn to use it properly and safely. Not many people would run out and operate a bulldozer without proper instruction, yet organizations hand out email access with no rules or instructions on use. Hopefully, this ten-part guide can provide some help.
1. Before you create an E-Mail, stop and ask yourself three questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- What, exactly do I want as a result of this E-Mail?
- Is this an urgent message?
If you can’t answer the first two questions take the time to think out your E-Mail, you may come up with the answer on your own, or at least create a more complete message. Readers will naturally gravitate to the E-Mails that are well thought out and respect their time and attention. Careless E-Mails won’t get careful responses.
If you answered yes to the third question, pick up the telephone first. The term ‘Urgent E-Mail’ is about as silly as the time someone (a high ranking HR executive I might add) asked why the HR system doesn’t have an E-Mail address for emergency contacts.
There are three basic reasons to send a business E-Mail:
- Request Information – “What time is the staff meeting?”
- Provide Information – “The staff meeting begins at 9AM in room 201”
- Request an Action – “Can you reschedule the staff meeting?”
2. Write a good subject line
When you scan through E-Mails, how do you determine which ones receive your valuable time? There are three pieces of data available to you: Sender, Date, and Subject. A good subject line can make it easy for recipients to immediately understand why you’ve sent them an E-Mail and to quickly determine what kind of response or action it requires. If you do nothing else after reading this guide, take a little extra time and compose a good subject line that summarizes the most important points of the message.
You almost don’t need to read the contents to understand the message. Good subject lines can make excellent action items but some subject lines give only partial information won’t prompt the same response or attention. Here are a few examples:
Be careful to avoid making your subject line too long. Generally 10 to 15 words is a good limit.
3. E-Mail Content
When developing an E-Mail communication it is important to get to the point. If someone needs a history lesson on the subject then just do the highlights. Detailed information should be in a document that is stored somewhere as a permanent record. If you drone on and on, the reader will tend to try and skip to the important parts. Here are some content tips:
- Put the key point of your message up front
Don’t make the reader hunt for what you want to say. The main point should be at the top and additional information should be there only to support your main topic. A good practice is to assume that no one will ever read anything more than the first sentence. If you make it a good one you could entice the reader to look at the rest of your message.
- Be brief
A message spilling down 2 or 3 scrolling pages will certainly not create the desire to engage and respond. Try to fit it into one screen with no scrolling. There’s a reason those web ads placed “above the fold” cost a lot more than the ones stuck down at the bottom; it’s the only part of the page that you’re sure the reader will see.
- Know your audience
What does your addressee already know? What do they need to know? Avoid a future exchange of more messages because you have not provided enough information.
Knowing the recipient’s preferences for format or length will help you get a speedy and complete response.
- Limited Topics
Limit your E-Mail to one or two topics. Too many subjects in one message could dilute your important points. If you have more to say, send another E-Mail.
- Prep for an easy response
Make it easy for the reader to reply yes or no or give a short answer (instead of "let me know what you think" write "Is Monday at 2PM good for you?"). Short answer E-Mails will also make responding from a BlackBerry or other hand-held device easier. If a long response is needed, the reader may be forced to wait till they are back in the office to reply, which could be days if they are traveling.
- Make it easy to read
Combine upper and lowercase. Use white space between points. Use a clearly legible font in a dark shade with a good font size (at least 12pt) to make it easy on the eyes.
- End well
Never leave the reader guessing what to do next. End your message with an appropriate next step. If they don’t easily see what to do, they may assume that no action is needed. Example: ‘Please respond by 5pm today (March 1st) with your choice of A—or B—‘
Spell check is a free service, it costs you nothing to use. Another option is to copy your text into a word document (or type it there first), run spell/grammar check, then paste into your E-Mail.
4. Forwarding E-Mail
When forwarding an E-Mail, some people send a trail of correspondence a month long. Why make the reader scroll through endless messages to find what you want them to see. You should also make sure there is nothing in the E-Mail history that they should not see.
The other lesson to learn from this example is: don’t say anything in an E-Mail that you wouldn’t want read by everyone. E-Mail is too easy to forward. If you want to trash someone do it verbally. E-Mail is not known as “The DNA of office crimes” for nothing. If you do cut and paste ideas or information always make sure you credit the originator. They too have a record of their E-Mail.
Attachments are great if they are appropriate and manageable. Avoid sending attachments unless they are really necessary. Here are some attachment guidelines:
- Make sure your reader needs the whole file. If they need to reference one paragraph in a large word document, cut and paste the section out and include in the E-Mail.
- If files are large, send an initial E-Mail message to ask if they can handle the format and size.
- If you are asking a question and want a quick response, don’t send an attachment, send it later or separately. If the other person is using a hand-held device or has a slow connection they may have to ignore your attachment email till a later date or time.
- Don’t send attachments to a large list of E-Mail recipients. Chances are only a few of them need the file so why clog up everyone’s inbox?
- Attachments are excellent ways to spread viruses. If you are forwarding a file that is infected, you could infect your colleague’s computers.
6. To CC or Not to CC?
One of the decisions you make when you send an E-Mail is who to address the message to and who to copy. Copying many people on E-Mails is a hideous practice that is overused and abused. Some do it as a CYA (cover your a__), others do it to show people how much they are contributing to the topic, but most (I hope) do it because they need to share the information or get multiple input on the same question.
A good rule for deciding who to copy is to ask yourself what you expect from each person you copy. If they will not act on the information you send, don’t copy them. If the information is a work-in-progress and some people need to see the final copy, don’t burden them with the entire process.
If everyone should be copied, try to structure your request so that each party knows what is expected of them: Example
CC: Jane.Anderson, Fred.Barnes, Ellen.Kelly
Subject: ACME proposal review
Please review the attached updated proposal and return your comments to me by Friday 2/17
- Sam: check the staffing model
- Jane: check the financials
- Fred: run through legal requirements
- Ellen: make sure resumes are up-to-date
7. No Thanks
I know that this may not seem polite but too often we get E-Mails with a single word ‘Thanks’. If you are working on a task or project that will have multiple interactions, save the ‘Thank you’ messages till you are at a good breaking point or milestone. Then you can send a proper thank you note that is more than one word. It will cut down on traffic and keep people’s inboxes down to a manageable level.
8. Be response-able
For those of us who travel, E-Mail is often our lifeline, so it should not be taken lightly by either sender or recipient. If someone has taken the time to send a well thought out request we need to reward that effort with a thoughtful response.
The big problem with E-Mail is of course how to manage your inbox and correspondence while leaving time to do the rest of your job. Not wanting to cover every E-Mail management technique, I selected one that is simple and easy to remember. It’s called the “Four D” Model. Before we begin with the D’s we have to talk about being prepared for scanning E-Mail.
Start with this goal: Handle each E-Mail message only once before taking action.
To do this, you have to make a decision as to what to do with it and where to put it on a single read.
Set yourself up with folders for Action Items, File for Reference, Delegated, and Delete 30 Days. Use these to help you sort through your E-Mail.
The 4-D Model
When you scan your inbox make one of 4 choices:
- Delete it
- Do it
- Delegate it
- Defer it
Many people shudder when they hear the word ‘Delete’. This is only natural, but if you think about it, what percentage of the E-Mails do you ever look at again? I would guess that it is very small. If you take the time to review each message and make a decision, you will archive the ones you need and can delete those that will just clog your inbox.
Ask your self these questions when deciding whether to delete a message:
- Does the message relate to a meaningful task you are currently working on?
- Does the message contain information you can find elsewhere?
- Does the message contain information that you will refer to within the next six months?
- Does the message contain information that you are required to keep?
If you answered no to all of the above, it should be safe to delete the message. If you are not sure put in your folder called ‘Delete 30 Days’. Then check that folder once a week and clear out anything over 30 days old.
If you can’t delete it, then decide, “What specific action do I need to take?” and “Can I do it in less than two minutes”. If you can, then just do it. There is no point in closing an E-Mail and coming back to it later if you can deal with it in a few minutes right now.
‘Do it’ does not always mean sending an E-Mail response. You can file it, turn it into an action item, respond via E-Mail, forward, or make a phone call. You will find that you can probably handle about half of your E-Mails that require actions in less than two minutes.
Once you have acted on this item, you have one more decision: Delete or File for future reference. This takes more discipline than responding in two minutes. Most often you will not need to look at this message again. If in doubt, use your ‘Delete 30-Days’ folder.
You can usually make the ‘Delegate’ decision in the two minutes or less timeframe. If you can decide this, do it right away. Once you delegate, delete the original or move to a reference folder for Delegated Actions.
Here is where your Action Item folder comes in. You can also use the little flags on Outlook to mark emails with different color flags as a reminder if you don’t want to move E-Mails to other folders. You can color code your flags to mean different actions.
Another tool is the task folder. Open a new task while you are in your E-Mail and create a calendar item with reminders to address this E-Mail by a certain date.
This may also help you better manage your to-do list.
The flags can then be turned into a check mark when complete. You can even sort your inbox by flag color when you have time to address deferred items.
9. Do It Daily (the fifth ‘D’)
Using the 4 D's model on a daily basis makes it easier to handle a large quantity of e-mail. The study I read shows that on average, people can process about 100 e-mail messages an hour using the Four-D technique. If you receive 40 to 100 messages per day, all you need is one hour of uninterrupted E-Mail processing time to get through your Inbox. Of course, if you have a backlog of hundreds of messages, it will take time to get to the point where the daily routine keeps you up to date.
It is best to select certain times of the day when you can devote attention to processing your mail. Having outlook open all day, with little pop-up messages telling you that you have new mail is a distraction, and not a recommended technique by any of the experts.
10. Train your E-Mailers
There are things you can do to train people regarding use of E-Mail. Some examples:
- If you are constantly copied on things that you don’t need to see send a reply asking how this is relevant to you or asking the sender not to include you in future communications that do not require actions on your part. Some people go so far as to send a single word reply “Relevant?” This may seem rude to some people but you could explain that you merely want to calibrate relevancy! Pretty soon they will be trained to stop sending you TMI.
- Be brief in your responses. Don’t feel the need to elaborate when a few words will do. People will learn to expect short answers from you or be more specific on the questions they ask.
- Don’t answer unanswerable questions. Example: you get a message that starts with “I haven't given this much thought, but what do you think about...?” In other words, the sender hasn't done much thinking and wants to shift responsibility to you. These things usually end in a long trail of messages that go on for weeks. You can either ignore these or send a short courtesy response telling them that the question is unanswerable or that they have to be more specific. The purpose of E-Mail is to save time, not kill time. Others may have infinite time to answer essay questions, if you are reading this guide – it isn’t you!
- Let people know that you only check E-Mail at certain points in the day and if there is an urgent message it should be done by phone.
The point is: If you are too accommodating, people will put less effort into their correspondences and your burden will grow. Help train your senders to value your time.
I’m sure there are many other areas I have not covered such as little smiley faces (emoticons), flaming, and signatures, but like the constitution of the United States, this guide can be amended.
I certainly hope that the pointers in this guide may make even a small difference in how people use E-Mail. With so many messages changing hands daily, even saving a few minutes can multiply into many hours of time across the organization as well as happier people getting replies to their E-Mails.
“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” - Edward R. Murrow
“The problem with communication ... is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” - George Bernard Shaw
“Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things.” - Dan Quayle