Using Email Efficiently
Email has become an indispensable part of our daily lives, promising efficient communication. It's quick, easy and cheap.
So why are so many email messages so awful?
After studies with different user groups and email envionments, Liquid Information have put together a few suggestions to help the you get your life back, by dealing with email more efficiently when you read, write and deal with email.
All of it boils down to this one thought: When you get crap, flush it. When you write, write like an angel: Write Readably. Because what you write is what you get.
"E-mail's ease of use and ubiquity has led to an information overload and productivity crisis for 90 percent of enterprises."
"...employees spend an average of 49 minutes per day managing their e-mail, with a quarter of employees spending more than an hour per day. Yet, workers reported that a third of the e-mail they received contained redundant or nonessential information. Unnecessary e-mail costs the average U.S. enterprise of 10,000 employees about $16 million a year. Alexander Linden, Research Director Advanced Technologies Gartner Group, www.gartner.com
"In total, UK directors spend 5,2 weeks a year dealing with email. 27% of email users claim the email volume they receive to be 'excessive' or 'intolerable''" (KPMG Consulting)
Make it pleasant.
Often email cuts out the pleasantries. Remember your P's & Q's if you don't want your message to be interpreted in a negative manner.
Though not loved by all, smilies :-) can be useful in reducing misunderstandings. If you think the recipient will think the email is sarcastic, it may be time for a friendly, cheesy smile, just like it would in real life.
Always be aware that someone will be reading what you are writing. Since you are not writing your message by hand you don't have to worry about legibility, but readability is still your responsibility.
Have you ever had to look back through old emails to find out what was actually discussed at some point? What was agreed, who said what and so on? This will happen again in the future so it's not just your recipient you are writing for, it's also yourself.
One thought per paragraph.
Laying your email out with one thought per paragraph makes it easier to read on a computer screen. Research has shown people read only about a third as much on a computer screen as they would on paper.
Don't quote the entire message in reply...
- especially on mailing lists. Only quote what you are replying to. Make it clear what you are replying to, don't be lazy and just include the entire bulk of the message you are replying to, signatures and all. This makes for a messy read.
If appropriate it often makes sense to cut a quote and add an ellipsis. Or manually add the >'s if you need to clean up your reply.
Write your reply inline if this is clear (in between lines of quoted text, with extra returns to make it easy to see your new text), but still give room between your reply and the quote. If the first quote you are replying to is quite long (though of course it won't be right?) then you may include an introduction so the recipient doesn't just think you have sent the message back with nothing added.
Use 'Forward' when forwarding, not 'Reply'.
Have you ever received emails where the entire message includes the '>' quotes? This happens when a message has been forwarded to you but the sender didn't hit 'Forward'. This makes the message look like a big old quote. Which is hard to read, especially in good email programs which displays the quotes in a different color to make the new text easier to picks out.
Grammar & style.
Use appropriate cases, commas and full stops. Punctuation has been invented to make reading easier. You are not writing to a computer remember, you are writing to a person.
Don't send as HTML.
If you can't communicate without bold's and italics, maybe you need to re-think your message. Although your email software may be able to read HTML, many cannot, especially on mobile devices.
Use URLs efficiently. If you are emailing a quote from a web page, add the URL to make it easy for the recipient to get to the source. Likewise, emailing just a URL isn't very friendly. Also, do type the full URL, including the http://www bit, as many email programs know how to make those live for the recipient, but not with just a name and a .com or even with the www in front.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Your email Subject is that message's first impression. Use the Subject to summarize the message. 'Hi' doesn't tell the recipient anything about the content of the message. But be ware, not everyone has a wide column for Subjects in their InBox.
Also, make sure your message doesn't look like SPAM. Are you sending out business mail with a reference number in the Subject? Maybe you want something more informative before it.
Check and edit the content.
Spell check your emails. Legibility is assured as you are typing. You don't need to worry about your handwriting. So this is a great opportunity to focus on layout, spelling and style.
Check and Edit the recipient list
Check and edit your messages. Make double sure you're not complaining to your boss about your bonus (or lack thereof) - send your message to the right person! Email is quick but that doesn't mean you should be. Take time and don't make silly rush mistakes. Many corporate secrets have been leaked and careers runied through misdirected emails.
Be careful, attachments can slow the recipients download to a crawl. Maybe you can FTP the file? Or just share it?
Don't read it and don't reply to it. Definitively do not forward it.
You don't want to be treated like a child by your boss so you need to act like an adult. Would you spend 3 hours on the phone to your friend at your company's expense ? No. So why does email make it okay? The simple answer is: 'It Doesn't.'
Deal with unwanted messages quickly.
Don't open and try to digest every message which arrives. If it's SPAM, you should be able to delete it instantly. Don't send SPAM. SPAM includes chain letters, jokes to all your friends and so on. It's not just porn and money making schemes.
If it's email addressed primarily to someone else and you are CC'd in on it, learn to skim them. Learn to take the pulse of your organization by tuning in to the frequency of emails, who are sending messages, what the subjects of the messages are etc. Forget about trying to read and digest it all. You do have a job to get on with remember. And a life :-)
Reply promptly but don't be a slave to email checking.
Check regularly and find a way to be alerted of important messages, but don't get too caught up checking.
Beware of using reply all.
Are you sure everyone will benefit from your reply?
filing/dealing with messages
Don't get overloaded with too many folders..
More folders than 30 becomes messy and unproductive (Ducheneaut & Belloti). Try to back up outdated project folders when they are no longer necessary.
Check your email name.
Messages which arrive without your name, shows the garbage characters instead of your name or which just show the email address and not your name can look un-professional or worse, look like SPAM. So email yourself to check.
Check your email signature.
Check your automatic signature. Does it include a sign-off (regards etc.) and you normally write one anyway, this can give the recipient an odd looking email with what is in effect two signatures.
& finally: Think about all the badly written and badly formatted messages you receive. Make sure you are not sending any as bad.
Sarah Walton & Frode Hegland © 2002 The Liquid Information Company