You've got mail
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.