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E-mail: Do’s and Don’ts

“Be careful of the drawbacks in hasty use of e-mail”

“Follow e-mail etiquette to avoid being annoying”


“Don’t let e-mail inbox control your time”

“The do’s and don’ts for using e-mail effectively”

Don't be a netcompoop

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Be careful of the drawbacks
in hasty use of e-mail

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

The problem with e-mail communication is that it is easily misunderstood. Its most attractive attributes – speed and convenience – are linked to its chief drawbacks. Operating within its culture of quickness and immediacy, writers tend to fire off hastily composed messages that are disorganized, incomplete, and ambiguous.

 

Imagine, for example, that you have received an e-mail message from your boss requesting you to present a proposal at next week’s staff meeting. You don’t mind the assignment, but you’re preoccupied with other matters at the moment, so you respond by simply typing “Fine” and hitting the Send button.

 

On opening your message, your boss sees your one-word response and interprets your tone as sarcastic, as in “Fine. Just what I wanted. Another assignment. As if I don’t already have enough work to do.”

 

The reason for the miscommunication? In your haste to respond promptly, you responded briefly, relying on your intended tone to convey your meaning. It’s a common error.

 

By its nature e-mail communication encourages a personal, informal style of writing, a feature most people view as attractive. Writers get into trouble, however, when they assume that readers can actually hear the inflection of their voices. Although e-mail may be more like oral communication than traditional forms of written communication, it’s still writing, not speaking.

 

To guard against this type of misunderstanding, take this simple precaution: Include a goodwill statement in every message you send.

 

Rather than “Fine,” write “Fine. Happy to do it.”  Rather than write “Please come prepared to discuss the report,” add another sentence: “As always, I value your experience and insight.”

 

Rather than “Well, you did it again. Would you mind adapting your presentation for our board?” write “Well, you did it again. Great job! Would you mind adapting . . .”

 

A goodwill statement is like an insurance policy. It protects you from being misunderstood. Including it reduces the risk of miscommunication when you are writing quickly.

 

Here are some additional tips to help you use e-mail effectively:

 

Include a purpose statement. Although not always necessary in a rapid exchange between two writers, a purpose statement orients your reader to your message. If you find yourself beginning a message with one point in mind then adding three other points, go back to the top and add an introductory statement such as “I have four questions for you.”

 

Write in short paragraphs. Nearly everything you write can be divided into three parts: introduction, body, closing; or – to use the three-step memo approach – purpose, background, proposed action. To communicate in chunks of unbroken text is discourteous to your reader.

 

Stick to the point. When you ramble or express yourself incompletely, you increase the chances of being misunderstood. It’s fine to be informal and playful, but always write with a sense of purpose.

 

Don’t write in anger. It’s a lose-lose endeavor. You risk appearing foolish, and you are likely to elicit an angry response from your reader. Don’t let the ease of using e-mail tempt you to fire off a hot one.

 

Don’t write anything you don’t want the whole world to see. E-mail is notorious for the speed and ease with which confidential information can be disseminated – often to just the wrong people. Remember, in online communication there’s no such thing as privacy.

 

Proofread your writing. Although occasional typographical errors might be tolerated by your reader, always read over what you have written at least once to check for clarity and accuracy.

 

In today’s frantic workplace, where nano-seconds seem like hours, speed is a virtue, but sometimes slowing down a little is the surest way to reach your destination.

 

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Follow e-mail etiquette to avoid being annoying

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

I love technology. I love all the wonderful things it does for to us. I also hate technology. Or, more accurately, I hate the way some people misuse technology.

 

Take the cell phone, for example. What a marvelous invention, one that offers such remarkable convenience. But what is it about that handy little device that encourages an I’m-the-only-one-who-counts attitude?

 

When I go to the theater and see a sign asking patrons to turn off their electronic devices, I am appreciative of the effort to protect my enjoyment of the performance, but I am disheartened that such an effort is necessary. Aren’t certain expectations obvious?

 

To me, letting your phone ring in a public gathering is like belching at a restaurant. It might feel good to the individual, but the rest of us don’t care to hear it.

 

I wonder if the same only-I-matter attitude accounts for the problems we are encountering with e-mail – another wonderful invention whose value is increasingly undermined by thoughtlessness.

 

Here’s how you can help preserve the efficiency of e-mail and avoid contributing to message overload:

 

Read your text before sending it. Remember the four Cs of effective e-mail communication: Check for clarity, conciseness, completeness, and correctness. Get it right the first time so that you don’t have to resend it.

 

Think before your send. Before clicking “Send,” pretend you are leaving home on a long trip, and ask yourself, “Now, what have I forgotten?”

 

Don’t forget to attach the attachment. Forgetting to do this is one of the more common reasons for having to resend a message.

 

Don’t send attachments to people who don’t know you. Because attachments may contain viruses, some people won’t open them. Increase the chances your text will be read by presenting it within the body of your e-mail message.

 

Consider scheduling meetings by phone. E-mail is terrific for reaching multiple readers, but certain types of transactions are better done the old way. A phone call or two can take the place of a four- or five-message exchange, especially if the meeting involves only a few people and if schedules are tight.

 

Follow company policy regarding personal communication. The less you pester others, the less you yourself will be pestered.

 

Don’t forward jokes unless you are certain your recipients want to receive them. Some great jokes have been sent to me by e-mail, but like most e-mail users I usually don’t have time to read them.

 

Don’t play “keep the message out of my inbox.” Don’t respond to a reasonable request with a contrived question or problem as a ploy to avoid doing some work.

 

Delay responding if you are annoyed or angry. Take time to cool down. Don’t be the person who starts a long series of angry exchanges.

 

Know when to talk in person. Don’t use e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication, to communicate bad news, or to address a delicate situation. Let people feel your presence, especially if they need reassurance.

 

Consider sending a handwritten thank-you note. The less convenient your means of expression is to you, the more significant your message will be to your recipient.

 

Don’t respond to every e-mail message. Don’t thank someone for thanking you. Don’t respond to every FYI message you receive. Let some things go unanswered.

 

Respond in proportion to the importance of the query. If someone asks a simple question, try to respond with a simple answer. In fairness to yourself, don’t spend hours responding to a hastily composed query.

 

Don’t save yourself time at your reader’s expense. It’s your responsibility – not your recipient’s – to determine if your message is relevant to the recipient. Use Cc: sparingly. Don’t use Reply All unless every recipient needs to hear your response. Cull your distribution list before sending a message.

 

In other words, remember the Golden Rule of e-mail communication: Put your reader’s convenience before your own.

 

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Don’t let e-mail inbox control your time

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Why is it that certain time-saving devices take up so much of our time? Consider the computer, for example. If this wonderful little gadget is designed to save us time, why does it take so much of it?

 

I suppose the answer is that, although we may devote an ever-increasing proportion of our day to computers, we are actually accomplishing more work per hour.

 

But I have my doubts. Has e-mail, the ultimate time saver, become the ultimate time waster? Even if the hours we render unto it are justified, how often do we catch ourselves ministering to its demands while neglecting higher priority duties?

 

To keep the efficiency in e-mail, I recommend three things: manage your files, keep the junk out of your inbox, and avoid pestering others.

 

In E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication, Dianna Booher offers a number of pointers for managing high-volume e-mail, from “Use LIFO (last in, first out)” to “File thin rather than fat.”

 

To protect yourself from spam (or “unsolicited items sent in bulk”), Booher recommends either activating a filter to block future messages or using a quick and easy method to inform the sender’s Internet service provider (ISP) of the abuse: “Simply remove everything in the e-mailer’s address before the @, replace it with abuse, and forward the offending e-mail to the service provider at abuse@aol.com or another ISP address.”

 

The only problem with this proactive approach to protecting your inbox is that it may generate additional traffic as your messages bounce back from spammers who seek to hide or disguise their own addresses or as the ISPs acknowledge receipt of your messages.

 

In Email Basics: Practical Tips To Improve Team Communication, Kristin Arnold offers 31 helpful tips for managing your inbox and being considerate of others. Here are the ones I liked best:

 

1. Check your email regularly (e.g., first thing in the morning and right after lunch) – not continually.

 

2. Before opening your messages, check their subject lines while the messages are still in your inbox browser, and delete the junk mail. Arnold compares this to “standing by the trash can as you go through your ‘snail mail.’”

 

3. Handle your messages only once. She recommends the DRAFS approach: Delete, Reply, Act, Forward, Save.

 

4. Remove yourself from distribution lists. Politely ask your associates and friends not to forward jokes, chain letters, or other types of junk mail.

 

5. Don’t reply to FYI or cc messages. No response is expected.

 

6. Eliminate the clutter when forwarding. Delete excess forwarding information that doesn’t relate to the content of the message.

 

7. Remind your reader of the context. Quote or paraphrase a point so that your recipient knows what you’re talking about.

 

8. Think twice before using Reply All. Ask yourself if everyone listed in the incoming to: and cc: lines needs to know your response.

 

9. Use the two-minute approach. Act immediately on messages that will require less than two minutes of your time.

 

10. Create file folders to save your messages. Create specific subject sub-folders for particular items or projects and give them descriptive titles so that you can find them later.

 

11. Know the limits of the medium. Arnold puts it colorfully: “When email has been lobbed back and forth like a tennis ball for more than three volleys, it’s time to pick up the phone, or go face to face.”

 

However you decide to define your relationship with your electronic companion, remember this: If you don’t manage your inbox, your inbox will manage you.

 

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The do’s and don’ts for using e-mail effectively

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

We’ve all heard stories about misunderstandings, angry exchanges, and damaged working relationships that have resulted from carelessly worded e-mail messages.

When Joe DeClue sent an e-mail message requesting that a buyer re-fax an order that hadn’t come through legibly, he was dismayed to receive this response: "I resent the entire request."

Baffled, DeClue wondered what he had done to give offense. And then he figured it out: The buyer meant he had "re-sent" the entire order.

To avoid similar misunderstandings, follow three rules:

1. Always proofread your text before you send it.

Not long ago I noticed something strange about the opening of my response to a reader’s query: "Thanks for your mess." I had come perilously close to sending my own "mess-age."

2. Include a goodwill statement.

A simple "nice to hear from you" or "good luck with your project" establishes a friendly context that makes it less likely your reader will misinterpret your tone elsewhere. DeClue’s misunderstanding, for example, might have been avoided if the buyer had written, "No problem. I resent the entire request."

3. Never put anything into an e-mail message that you don’t want the entire world to see.

How many stories have you heard about indiscrete messages that found their way to someone other than the intended audience? How many relationships have been damaged as a result?

In Email Basics – a book about the size of a postcard and not quite as thick as a deck of cards – Kristin Arnold offers 130 practical tips on using e-mail to improve team communication. Here are my favorites:

1. Don’t "flame" or write strongly worded, emotionally charged opinions.

2. Don’t ever send a "slam-o-gram" (a curt, negative, e-mail message).

3. If a message elicits an emotional response when you read it, take a second look at the wording and question your interpretation.

4. Review your company policy on e-mail and Internet use, bearing in mind you have no right to privacy and your use will be monitored.

5. Remember that e-mail can serve as legal documentation – ask yourself if your attorney could defend you from your own words.

6. Do not hide behind e-mail to say something better said face to face.

7. Periodically declare an "E-mail Moratorium Day" where team members can use any other medium except e-mail; at the end of the day, assess what happened and consider better ways to communicate.

8. Quit fiddling with e-mail throughout the day – control your e-mail; don’t let it control you.

9. Use Reply All only when every recipient really needs your information.

10. Act immediately on items that will take less than two minutes.

11. Agree on how often team members will check messages and on a reasonable time to respond.

12. Routinely and frequently virus-scan your system, especially when receiving or downloading files from other systems.

13. Place the most important information at the beginning of your message.

14. Divide long paragraphs into shorter ones – three to six lines of type – and double space between paragraphs.

15. When listing three or more items, create a "vertical" list of numbered items.

16. Pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

17. Do not rely completely on your spell-checker.

18.Be tolerant of your teammates’ mistakes.

As if to illustrate the last point, the sentence preceding it refers to technical limitations that "effect" how quickly team members respond.

 

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Don’t be a netcompoop

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Here’s my take on cell phones. They’re marvelous little gadgets for instant communication, but they can be a terrific nuisance (or worse) when they’re misused.

 

Same with email. The difference is that cell phones are a relatively new technology, and we’re still discovering new ways to be annoying with them. Email, on the other hand, has been around long enough for us to have become really good at misusing it.

 

So I think it’s time we create names for some of the more common types of email abusers and abuses. Here are my suggestions:

 

Forwardamaniacs forward everything and anything they find interesting to everyone and anyone they know on the assumption that, if they find it interesting, everyone will. For whatever reason, Forwardamaniacs do not respond to repeated requests that they stop forwarding things to you.

 

Replyobroadcasters have never noticed both the “Reply all” and the “Reply” icons on their email software and so use “Reply all” exclusively, thereby generating enormous quantities of unnecessary email.

 

Repartators are Replyobroadcasters who have noticed the “Reply” icon but nevertheless use “Reply all” because they believe their rejoinders so clever and entertaining that they are worthy of the attention of a larger audience.

 

Beeseeseers send blind copies to various members of a group while maintaining the facade of open and direct communication with all parties.

 

Beeseeseeoopsers accidently forward a message sent “Bcc” to the person who wasn’t supposed to see it.

 

Thanksonutos send a thank-you for a thank-you message. Note, however, that Thanksonutos existed long before email, as evidenced by Evelyn Waugh’s observation: “His courtesy was somewhat extravagant. He would write and thank people who wrote to thank him for wedding presents and when he encountered anyone as punctilious as himself the correspondence ended only with death.”

 

Slamogramers send curt, succinct, insulting messages. Curiously, Slamogramers themselves tend to take offense when they themselves are criticized.

 

In-your-courters seek to hide that they have not done their work on a project by sending queries for nonessential information just before a deadline.

 

Multipointers begin a message with one point in mind but then add 17 more points during the process of composition.

 

Clumpers are Multipointers who present their 18 points without a paragraph break.

 

Maddashers – don’t know how to use punctuation marks – and so use – dashes as the default mark for all situations –

 

Fragamentarians. Write only in sentence fragments. Never in complete sentences. Like this.

 

Netnaysayers don’t respond to multiple requests to participate in a discussion and then weigh in later with a negative statement.

 

Signamotivators use signature files with long motivational quotes, advertisements or gimmicks.

 

Cursiecutsies use really cool looking cursive fonts that are difficult to read.

 

Dettachomaniacs always forget to attach the attachment and so have to send a second message. The second message usually begins with the word “Oops.”

 

Netcompoops engage in any of the practices above.

 

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