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
You've got mail
By Clive Shepherd
Email - boon or
Know when to use email
Be a responsible email user
Compose your messages with care
Minimise the e-load
Email - boon or burden?
If you believe the statistics were 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, lets 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?
Theres at least three good reasons why were doing it:
Its fast and its cheap: Recent
research5 draws this out conclusively. Heres what it takes
to send a 42 page document from New York to Tokyo:
It keeps us in touch: With email we can stay in
the loop whether were at our desks, working from home, on client premises, in our
hotel room or on the move. Now we dont need to be connected to our
organisations local area network, we can work with a laptop and a dial-up
connection, a palmtop or even a mobile phone.
It saves on the trees: In theory at least, more
electronic communication means less paper. Hopefully you dont print out all your
emails, you save them to disk or delete them. And in doing so, you dont lose out on
the audit trail - electronic storage provides a perfectly adequate record and, with proper
backups, is a lot safer.
But at what risk?
When we embrace electronic communications, we do so at our peril:
You may be misunderstood: Email is not a subtle
medium and you may not come across quite as you intended. Its all too easy to send
flames (inflammatory or critical messages) in the heat of the moment and to
have deep regrets the morning after. In a survey of employees in the City of London6,
81% of respondents felt that email was used when personal communication would be more
You lose control of your time: Some employees
report becoming slaves to email, with messages arriving at all times of day and night,
giving the impression that they are expected to be available 24 hours a day.
You never know who might read that message: In
1997, a major financial company was forced to pay £450,000 to a rival, after libelling
them in emails that had been sent internally. The rival obtained a court order to read the
messages after hearing about them. And a recent survey on the abuse of email7
turned up one employee who lost her job after forwarding a clients email to a
colleague, with an insult added at the top. After inadvertently hitting the reply button,
the employee not only lost her job, the company lost the client.
Spam, spam and more spam: Unsolicited, unwanted
emails are called spam and mostly theyre about as likeable as all that
junk mail that arrives through your letterbox. At first you may believe all those claims
for how you can make money, lose weight and generally enrich your life. You soon catch on.
You can have too much spam.
So how does it work?
Email is like conventional mail but without the postman. When you press
send, its 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 companys network or the Internet to get
the message there. At its destination, the message waits in the recipients mailbox
until such time as they stop by and collect it - I told you there was no postman -
although thats usually just a question of clicking on the receive
So the mechanics are simple. Far too simple. Much harder is
making this technology work for us. Ive trawled round the Internet - so you
dont have to! - to see how others have solved the problem. And heres what I
found, the four steps to email mastery:
- Know when to use email
- Be a responsible email user
- Compose your messages with care
- Minimise the e-load
Know when to use email
Characteristics of email
Email is distinct from other communications media in that it is:
Primarily a text medium: Generally speaking,
emails are composed of text. Text is a fine medium for expressing very precise meanings;
its also a medium that you can absorb at your own pace. But text has its limitations
- it cant convey the subtleties of tone of voice or body language, its not
particularly memorable and it doesnt grab your attention too well.
A push rather than a pull medium: A push medium
is one that is targeted at specific individuals, like a face-to-face meeting, a phone call
or a letter. You can be pretty sure youve been heard, even if not understood or
acted upon. Push messages are fine in moderation, but overdo it and you dont know
whether youre coming or youre going. A pull medium, on the other hand - like a
web site, notice board, magazine, TV or radio programme - is aimed at a general audience.
It sits and waits for you to come. You are under no pressure to come and, of course, you
may never do so.
Online rather than offline: Being online, i.e.
connected to a computer over a network, means that email can reach you extremely quickly
where ever in the world you are. Offline media, like paper documents and floppy disks,
have to be physically transmitted to the recipient - and that takes time.
Composed not spontaneous: Emails have to be
prepared, they dont just happen. It takes time to type them and that gives you time
to think. With a more spontaneous medium, like the telephone or a face-to-face situation,
you have to think on your feet.
Interactive not passive: Email is interactive in
an asynchronous, i.e. time-delayed manner. Over a period of time, you can engage in a
discussion or a negotiation that leads to a satisfactory conclusion; you can be sure that
a message has been understood or acted upon. A passive medium, like a video, a procedures
manual or even a large presentation, can not complete the feedback loop.
Use email when:
It is important that your audience gets your
message: This is a where a push medium is the right solution - a notice on a board or
in a magazine, or an article on the intranet would not do the trick.
You need to deliver a message to more than one person:
It is simply more practical and economic to deliver the same message to multiple
recipients using email rather than phone calls, memos or one-to-one meetings.
You want a quick but not an instant response:
Email will get to the recipient more quickly than a letter or a video, but you wont
get a response as fast as with a phone call or turning up in person.
Your audience is at a distance: The fact that
email is an online medium means that distance is no object. It will be much cheaper than a
long-distance call and faster than the snail mail.
You want time to compose your message: Use email
in preference to a phone call or in-person meeting, if you need to compose your
You require a record of your message: Whether
its stored on disk or printed out, an email can give you a permanent record of your
message, something thats more difficult to achieve with the phone or working
Dont use email when:
- It is not essential that all of your audience gets the
message: You shouldnt get emails because someone else needs to read them. If
you want to broadcast a message, use the intranet, a notice board, a video or a magazine.
You need an immediate response: If youre in
a real hurry, use the phone or use the legs for the purpose for which they were
You are delivering sensitive information: At
worst the recipient needs to hear the tone of your voice and that means getting on the
phone. Much better is to say it in person, when your body language can do most of
Text is not a powerful enough medium: If you need
to convey complex processes or principles, to grab attention or influence attitudes, then
text is unlikely to be enough. Thats why we have graphics, audio and video.
- You are agitated: Sometimes its more tempting
to say what you think in writing than on the phone or in person. Dont. Its
e-rage and its not good for your career. If you are agitated, its better not
to communicate at all. Have a drink. Kick the cat.
Be a responsible email user
As an email user, you have responsibilities to other users and
to your organisation:
Check your mail at least daily: Anyone sending
you an email of any importance at all will have a minimum expectation for the time it will
take for you to get round to reading it. It is reasonable to expect that you access your
mail daily, if not more regularly. Obviously there will be circumstances when you
physically can not get to a suitable computer, in which case other arrangements should be
- Respond quickly, even if its just a holding
response: Unless the mail is junk or for information only, you should aim
to respond promptly. It is so simple to make a quick email response, that there really is
no excuse for not doing it. If you really can not satisfy the request immediately, you can
always send a holding response to let the sender know that you are dealing with it and
when they can expect an answer.
Have your mail dealt with while youre away:
When you will not be available to handle your email, you can make other arrangements. Most
email software will allow you to forward mail to another address. Some software will allow
you to send automatic holding responses telling the sender that you are away and for how
long. If neither of these is possible, you could email those people most likely to mail
you and let them know not to expect any response for the time that you are away.
Delete unwanted messages immediately: Messages
sitting in your in-box clog up the mail server, particularly when they come with
attachments (if you have a dial-up connection and have downloaded them from your ISP, then
you're clogging up your own hard disk). Do your organisation (or yourself) a favour
- get rid of them.
- Save messages for reference in an organised way:
Those messages that you need to keep - and that's a small minority - should be filed in an
orderly manner in folders that sensibly compartmentalise your work. That way you stand
some chance of finding them again.
Compose your messages with care
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.
If theres more than one recipient, address the
message to the ones who need to take action: The people that you address your message
to should be the ones who really need to take notice of it.
Copy in those people for whom the message is
information only: Don't expect action from those who've been cc'd.
Keep copies to a minimum: Think hard before
copying in all and sundry. Given that they lead busy lives too, check that the information
really is important to them.
Never leave it blank: The header is what tells
the reader what's in the message. If it's blank, there is no way to tell what the message
is about or how important it is. It's lazy and impolite to leave the header blank, so
don't be surprised if the message is deleted without being read.
Make it meaningful: The header should clearly
describe the content of the message. With a meaningful header, you're more likely to be
read. You'll also find it easier to locate messages when they've been archived.
Try making it the message: You may be able to put
your whole message in the header - "Meeting agreed for Monday at 2 your place" -
saving the reader the trouble of opening the email.
Be concise, without being abrupt: Nobody wants to
read a lot of text on-screen - it's hard work (25% slower than paper) and tedious. So keep
your message as short as you can, without being rude - there's a fine line between being
concise and being curt.
Put the main point up front: You save your reader
time if you get to the point straight away. That way, they only need to read on if they
need more detail. And if your email really has to be lengthy, you can list the key points
at the top of the message and then deal with them one by one under clear headings.
Keep paragraphs short: It's easier to read text
in short paragraphs - a good rule is to limit each paragraph to a single point. And where
possible, go a step further and use bulleted lists rather than prose as they are much
easier to scan.
Use plain, simple English: This point is not
really unique to email but is worth restating nevertheless. Plain English is easier to
read and more likely to be understood. And because email is somewhere between a 'phone
call and a letter, you can afford to be relaxed and conversational in tone. This does not
mean that spelling and grammar can be ignored. If your messages are going outside your
organisation, you need to take as much care as you would with a paper communication.
Know when to talk in code: Smileys (those strange
symbols which express emotions, like :-) for happy and :-( for sad) and e-cronyms (BTW for
'by the way' and GAL for 'get a life') are only for the initiated. Email should not be the
province of some secret society, so stick to English even if it takes a little longer.
Keep it short: The signature is the automatic
sign-off you append to your message. If you need one at all, keep it down to under six
lines and spare the bandwidth for more important content.
Provide contact information: What a signature can
do is provide your reader with a number of ways to contact you - your telephone and fax
numbers, your address and maybe your web site. That way your reader can choose the most
suitable way to get in touch.
Avoid them if you can: Like many things in live,
attachments are incredibly useful and also incredibly over-used. They can be too short -
in which case they may as well be part of your message - or too long. A very high
proportion of disk space on a mail server is taken up by attachments, very many of which
are frivolous. When you send an animation or a video to ten people you are actually
creating ten new copies of the file. Why not provide the web address or the path on your
file server and let your readers access the file there?
Describe them in the body: When you add an
attachment, provide a description of what it contains in the body of your message. That
way the reader only needs to open the attachment if they're really interested.
Minimise the e-load
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
Use a little discipline
We could all use a little discipline, and I dont mean from
Madam (or Mister) Sin. We can reduce the e-load by being a little more decisive and a
little less lazy.
- Restrict your email access times: If you're
constantly aware of your incoming messages, you'll become a slave to the medium. Set aside
two or three times a day when you can concentrate on reading, responding and composing
messages. Don't be interrupted throughout the day by pop-up messages and jingles
announcing your new mail - turn those features off.
- Read each message once and only once: This is a bit
like handling your traditional mail. It's all too easy to browse through each letter and
then put it aside to deal with later - when you have to read it all over again. One of the
quickest ways to empty the contents of your in-box is to read each message and deal with
- Keep your in-box clear: There's nothing more
satisfying than an empty in-box - unless it's a clear desk. Achieving this goal requires
you to take action each time you've finished handling your mail - simply archive those
messages you're likely to refer to again and then delete the rest, permanently.
Use your right to reply
- Think before you reply to all: Do you
really intend to respond to the sender, not all the other addressees? Remember that one
person's valuable information is another's junk mail.
- Cut down on acknowledgements: It's a natural part of
communication to acknowledge a response - it's a way of completing the transaction. But
not all communications will seem incomplete without them, so you may be able to cut down.
You can tell your readers if there's no need to reply. And with some software you can make
a check to see if an email has been read, without any action on the part of the reader.
- Follow threads, within reason: You create a 'thread'
when you make a reply and send back the original message along with it. This allows the
reader to follow the thread of the topic and put your reply a context. However, threads
can build up until you are exchanging monstrous messages that go back months. Sometimes
it's better to start again and leave the baggage behind.
- Tell senders if you dont need their mail: If
you get mail you don't need, reply to the sender and tell them just that. You can't blame
them for sending you unnecessary mail if you don't tell them. And all those mailing lists
you joined, just to keep you up-to-date - if you haven't found them helpful, simply
unsubscribe and cut down on the junk.
Use your software
- Get to know your software: We don't all have the time
to delve into our email software - we just learn the basics and hope for the best. But the
latest software is packed with features, many of which can make your life easier. Ask for
some training, buy a book or just explore the menus and the on-line help - it doesn't take
as long as you think.
- Use filters to reduce the junk: Some software
incorporates filters that can be used to keep out junk mail or adult content. One
consultant was receiving half a dozen of these a day; by employing the filters he's down
to one every two or three days.
- Use mailing lists in moderation: Mailing lists really
do save you time and help you to get important information to those who really need it,
without having to type in each email address one at a time. But, to minimise the risk of
drowning readers in mail from lists, they need to be focused on very specific subjects.
Ideally each member of a list will have volunteered for the information and will have the
opportunity to unsubscribe. Above all, avoid the worst mailing list of all - the one that
mails every employee in the organisation.
- Sort mail into folders: Your email software may allow
you to sort your mail into folders and thus avoid a single, lengthy list of messages in
your in-box. You could sort messages by sender, by project, by subject or by the action
Dont have a downer on email. Used for the right reasons and in
the right way, it should actually save you time:
- waiting to get through on the phone
- waiting for the snail mail to arrive
- composing and despatching conventional memos
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
youve returned from holiday to a thousand electronic communications, all marked
urgent, it could be worse - you could have no emails at all.
Interested in finding out more about this subject? Try http://email.miningco.com
1Forrester Research Group
4Investors in People UK and Andersen Consulting
|© Fastrak Consulting