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pixel.gif (807 bytes) Know when to use email
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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; it’s also a medium that you can absorb at your own pace. But text has its limitations - it can’t convey the subtleties of tone of voice or body language, it’s not particularly memorable and it doesn’t 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 you’ve been heard, even if not understood or acted upon. Push messages are fine in moderation, but overdo it and you don’t know whether you’re coming or you’re 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 don’t 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 won’t 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 message carefully.
  • You require a record of your message: Whether it’s stored on disk or printed out, an email can give you a permanent record of your message, something that’s more difficult to achieve with the ‘phone or working face-to-face.

Don’t use email when:

  • It is not essential that all of your audience gets the message: You shouldn’t 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 you’re in a real hurry, use the ‘phone or use the legs for the purpose for which they were intended.
  • 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 the talking.
  • 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. That’s why we have graphics, audio and video.
  • You are agitated: Sometimes it’s more tempting to say what you think in writing than on the phone or in person. Don’t. It’s e-rage and it’s not good for your career. If you are agitated, it’s better not to communicate at all. Have a drink. Kick the cat.

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                                                     Fastrak Consulting Ltd, 1999. All rights reserved.                                  Last revised 3/5/99