Write effective e-mails!

By Mark Graham

Electronic communication, due to its speed and broadcasting ability, is

fundamentally different from paper-based communication such as letters

and memos. Because the other person's response time capability is so

fast, e-mail is more "conversational" than traditional methods of

communication.

In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything

completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a

chance to ask for clarification. With e-mail documents, your recipient

can ask questions immediately. E-mail, therefore, like conversational

speech, tends to be much sloppier and more ambiguous.

This is not always bad. It might not be a worthwhile expenditure of

energy to slave over a message, making sure that your spelling is

faultless, your words eloquent, your grammar and punctuation are beyond

reproach, if the point of the message is simply to inform the recipient

that you are ready to go to lunch.

Granted, you should put some effort into ensuring that your subjects

agree with your verbs, words are spelled correctly, avoid the mixing of

metaphors, and so on. However, if "The Rules" laid down in your

ninth-grade English class get in the way of effective communication,

throw them out.

Due to the lack of vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment,

e-mail is not as rich a communication method as a face-to-face or even a

telephone conversation. Your recipient may have difficulty telling if

you are being serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric.

Thus, your e-mail compositions should be different from both your speech

and paper compositions. There are a number of documents on electronic

e-mail commercially available, but they mostly address the "nuts and

bolts" of how to get text from your fingers to your correspondent's

screen. Those that do discuss e-mail content tend to be really brief on

the subject of e-mail style, and provide little motivation for why its

so important that the style be different.

With e-mail, you cannot assume anything about your correspondent's

location, time, frame of mind, mood, health, marital status, affluence,

age, or gender. This means, among other things, that you need to be

very, very careful in phrasing your communications in order to prevent

misunderstandings.

Spelling Counts

The first important point to remember is that spelling counts, grammar

counts, pretty counts, in fact, everything counts. An e-mail represents

you, your message, your point of view, your ethics and your very

integrity in your physical absence. What the recipient receives says a

lot about you. The question you need to ask yourself is is this how I

would want the reader to perceive me if we were meeting face-to-face?

If the image is wrong, change your e-mail. Also, remember that, while

some mailer programs have spelling checkers, they detect only misspelled

words. They are of no value if you use the wrong word.

Never forget that there is a real person on the other end reading and

reacting to what you have written. Just as in a face-to-face meeting,

first impressions are important.

Useful Subject Lines

A subject line that directly relates to the e-mail body is the fastest

way to let people know what your e-mail message is about. The subject

line should be brief because many mailers will truncate long subject

lines. It does not need to be a complete sentence, but should obviously

pertain to the information in your e-mail.

If you are responding to an -mail, your mailer program should preface

the subject line with "Re:" or "RE:" (for Regarding). If your mailer

program does not automatically do this, it is considered good form to

insert "RE:" into the subject line.

If you are sending non-urgent information that requires no response from

the other person, prefacing the subject line with "FYI:" (For Your

Information) will immediately inform the recipient that no action is

required.

For time-critical messages, starting the subject line with "URGENT:" is

probably the best way to get the recipient's attention -- especially if

you know that person receives a lot of e-mail.

When you are requesting information or anything else, starting the

subject line with "REQ:" (Request) will inform the recipient that some

action is probably required on his or her part.

Quoting Documents

If you are referring to a previously received e-mail, you should

explicitly quote that document to provide context. For example, instead

of sending an e-mail that says:

" Yes"

Say:

Are you available to meet with the auditors next Friday?

Yes

Page Layout

Displays on a computer screen will very often look different than on

paper, and people generally find it harder to read anything on a screen

than on when printed on paper. In fact, many people actually print out

their e-mail so they can read it. The screen's resolution is not as good

as paper, oftentimes there is a flicker, the screen's font may be

smaller (or ugly) or the color combinations may be absolutely atrocious.

Your recipient's mail reader may also impose certain constraints on the

formatting of received e-mail messages. All of these items lead to the

conclusion that a "good" e-mail page layout is different from a good

paper document page layout.

Write Shorter Paragraphs

In addition to the above-mentioned problems, frequently the e-mail

message will be read in a document window using scrollbars. While

scrollbars are great, it makes it harder to visually track long

paragraphs. Consider breaking up your paragraphs to include only two or

three sentences in each. It will make reading much easier for the

recipient.

Trim Line Length

Several of the software packages currently used to read e-mail do not

automatically wrap words (i.e., adjust line and word spacing). This

means that if the software you use to send e-mail wraps your words for

you and your recipient's does not, your recipient may end up with a

message that is highly fragmented and extremely difficult to read - even

when printed out. It is even worse with some e-mail readers in that they

truncate everything past the 80th character. This is certainly not the

way to win friends and influence people.

A good "rule of thumb" is to keep your lines under 75 characters long.

Why 75 and not 80? Because you should leave some room for indentation or

quote marks for your correspondent in case he or she is going to quote a

piece of your original e-mail in a reply.

Be Terse With Your Prose

We spend anywhere from 12 to 20 years being rewarded for being verbose

in our written communications. Unfortunately, this is not appropriate

for e-mail. While your message should be as clear as possible, remember

that if they want more information, they can always ask for it. Also,

remember that in some places, users are charged by the byte and/or have

limits on how much disk space their e-mail can use. If you become

verbose, you are quite possibly costing your recipient money - and that

is never appreciated.

One Page, Please

It's also a good "rule of thumb" to try to keep everything on one "page"

whenever possible. In most cases, this means about twenty-five lines of

text.

"Attach" Longer Messages

Some mailer programs support "attachments," where you can specify a

document or even a file to send along with your e-mail. If the recipient

has a e-mail reader that can handle attachments, this is an excellent

tool as a long attachment can be looked at later off-line. However, if

the recipient's e-mail reader cannot handle attachments, and you send a

non-ASCII file (e.g., a Word document, a binary file, a picture,

compressed text, etc.), be advised that it will be displayed as garbage.

Intonation

While you cannot make your voice higher or lower, louder or softer to

denote emphasis, there are techniques used by many people to convey

vocal inflection. For example, you can indicate:

Light Emphasis - If you want to give something mild emphasis, you can

enclose it in asterisks. This is the moral equivalent of italics in a

paper document. (Example: I will finish by this *Friday*.)

Another techniques is to capitalize the first letter only of words to

give light emphasis. (Example: While we try to avoid that scenario, it

is not Cast In Stone.)

Strong Emphasis - If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all

capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. (Example: Be

sure to disconnect the battery or it might EXPLODE!!!)

Note that you should use capital letters sparingly as the world e-mail

community has come to understand such usage indicates that you are

shouting. It is totally inappropriate, and considered to be quite rude,

to use all capital letters in a situation when you are calm. (Example:

WHEN YOU GET TO JACKSON BE SURE TO GIVE ME A CALL OR DROP BY AS I AM

ALWAYS AT HOME.)

Gestures - While you are unable to accompany your words with hand or

facial gestures, there are several ASCII stand-ins for gestures.

Smileys

A facial gestures can be represented with "smiley": an ASCII drawing of

a facial expression. The three most commonly used are:

:-) ;-) and :-(

To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look

at them sideways. After a while, they actually begin to make sense.

There are a wide range of ASCII gestures available to you, from ill %^P

to angry & gt;:- & lt; to astonished :-o, and limited only by your imagination.

In fact, some budding entrepreneur has created an entire "Smiley

Dictionary" just in case you feel uncreative.

Creative Punctuation

Instead of writing: I am very confused and a little upset. Why did you

give my report to Jack instead of Jill?

You could write: ???!??! Why did you give my report to Jack instead of

Jill?!?

The question mark is shorthand for a furrowed brow or a "huh?". The

exclamation mark is shorthand for amazement and possibly a scowl. The

two together are taken to mean astonishment.

There is also a long and proud tradition of using punctuation as a

placeholder for "venting steam," e.g., #%

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