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You've got mail
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By Clive Shepherd

You've got mail! And it isn't always going to be Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan (depending on your persuasion) who is dropping you a line from cyberspace. More likely it's more of that 75% of your email that is of no practical use at all. Concerned that it is time we became 'masters of our own mail', Clive Shepherd sets out here some practical advice that might just give some fresh hope to struggling e-communicators.

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Email - boon or burden?
Know when to use email
Be a responsible email user
Compose your messages with care
Minimise the e-load

Email - boon or burden?
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If you believe the statistics we’re all at it. By 2001, half the population of the US will be doing it more than 500 million times a day1. The Queen beat all but a handful of academics to it, by doing it for the first time in 1976. It is email. You only need to walk near a computer and someone will send you one. And then another. And then, on average, about 45 each day2.

St the risk of adding to the overload, let’s get our facts straight. Three quarters of all email is of no practical use. Up to half of it is deleted without being read3. And contributing to this is the fact that less than half of us receive any training in electronic communications - and far less are taught how to reduce the email overload4.

Why are we doing it?
There’s at least three good reasons why we’re doing it:

US$ Time
Airmail 7.4 5 days
Courier 26.25 24 hrs
Fax 28.83 31 mins
Internet email 0.1 2 mins

But at what risk?
When we embrace electronic communications, we do so at our peril:

So how does it work?
Email is like conventional mail but without the postman. When you press ‘send’, it’s like shoving the letter in the post box (although, with a dial-up connection, your mail tends to lay in the out tray for a while before being posted in bulk). At the post office (actually your mail server), they look at the address and determine which other post office to forward the message on to. And rather than using a van, the railway or a plane, they use your company’s network or the Internet to get the message there. At its destination, the message waits in the recipient’s mailbox until such time as they stop by and collect it - I told you there was no postman - although that’s usually just a question of clicking on the ‘receive’ button.

So the mechanics are simple. Far too simple. Much harder is making this technology work for us. I’ve trawled round the Internet - so you don’t have to! - to see how others have solved the problem. And here’s what I found, the four steps to email mastery:

  1. Know when to use email
  2. Be a responsible email user
  3. Compose your messages with care
  4. Minimise the e-load

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Know when to use email
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Characteristics of email
Email is distinct from other communications media in that it is:

Use email when:

Don’t use email when:

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Be a responsible email user
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As an email user, you have responsibilities to other users and to your organisation:

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Compose your messages with care
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It matters, of course, what you put in your email messages. A well-constructed message will make life easier for your readers and improve your chances of getting the response you want.

The address

The header

The body

The signature

Attachments

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Minimise the e-load
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Information overload seems more apparent with email, because the medium somehow feels more urgent and immediate than other forms of communication such as letters. If this overload is getting on top of you, here's some tips for getting back in control.

Use a little discipline
We could all use a little discipline, and I don’t mean from Madam (or Mister) Sin. We can reduce the e-load by being a little more decisive and a little less lazy.

Use your right to reply

Use your software

And finally
Don’t have a downer on email. Used for the right reasons and in the right way, it should actually save you time:

It also reduces the amount of paper on your desk and cuts down on unnecessary interruptions, whether by ‘phone or in person. And remember, when you’ve returned from holiday to a thousand electronic communications, all marked urgent, it could be worse - you could have no emails at all.
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Interested in finding out more about this subject? Try http://email.miningco.com

1Forrester Research Group
2Global Integration
3Global Integration
4Investors in People UK and Andersen Consulting
5ITU
6In Tuition
7Content Technologies

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