E-mail : Use it but don't abuse it. Guidelines for writing effective e-mail

E-mail messages have many advantages over traditional business letters. They are faster to write, easier to send, less expensive, easier to file and retrieve, and they encourage faster responses. As a result, they are replacing business letters in many organizations. But their frequency of use and ease of transmittal have introduced a whole new set of problems for business. Employees are sending unnecessary information to disinterested people and copying others needlessly. To save time they are writing rapidly, using poor grammar, undecipherable shorthand, vague subject lines (if any) and failing to pause for as much as a quick edit before striking the Send button. Consequently companies are being plagued with sloppy work, poor communications and lost time.

By Harold Taylor
To stop this downward spiral, it is imperative that everyone in the organization learns to write effectively with the reader in mind. Messages should be crisp, clear and concise. The following suggestions, in the form of an acronym spelling the word EMAIL, will provide a guideline for improving electronic communications.

Edit the message before you send it. The reputation of the organization is at stake. Speediness does not justify sloppiness. Use upper and lower case. Punctuate properly. Double-space paragraphs. Communicate clearly, indicating the action that you want the reader to take. Be professional. Avoid sexist language. Be sensitive to cultural differences. Don't write emotionally charged e-mails that you might later regret. And remember that there's no such thing as confidential e-mail. Don't say anything in your message that you wouldn't want the whole world to see.

Make your writing live. Let a positive attitude permeate your message. Be brief, but neither blunt nor boring. Avoid the passive voice, clichés, jargon, acronyms and gobbledygook. Avoid needless modifiers, wordy phrases, overused modifiers and long rambling sentences. Use action verbs. Vary the length of sentences. Separate paragraphs by double spacing. Double space and number any points being made. And keep the message to one screen if possible. Write to express, not to impress.

Always add any attachments before you address the e-mail. Most people have forgotten to include the attachment at one time or another. Guard against an itchy trigger finger by writing the e-mail undressed. This will also give you the opportunity to edit the message before sending it. If the attachment is large, zip it and summarize the contents in the e-mail itself. Where possible, stay away from attachments altogether. Cut and paste the information into the e-mail. Viruses have made people reluctant to open attachments.

Identify yourself and the topic up front. Set your options so your full name and e-mail address appear in the From line. Use a subject line that accurately identifies the topic of the e-mail. And put the most important information in the first paragraph. Your objective is to get the reader to open your e-mail, read it and act upon it. With about 30% of e-mail being Spam, this isn't easy. You run the risk of having your message deleted unopened if the header doesn't grab their attention. Indicate in the subject line whether the message is urgent or a priority, but use the word Urgent sparingly.

Limit each e-mail to one topic only. You will have less problem writing a descriptive subject line and the message will be easier to file. It may also get a faster response. If people don't have all the answers to your questions they usually hold back until they do. Break up topics into separate e-mails and give them opportunities for immediate responses. You will also be able to pinpoint who should receive copies. Address the e-mail to the person who should respond, and copy everyone else.

Resist the urge to shoot off an e-mail when a telephone call or personal visit would be more appropriate. E-mail should enhance, not replace personal communication. Eighty-one percent of managers in one survey indicated that e-mails were being sent when personal communications would be more effective. Don't let the advantages of e-mail be offset by the many abuses that are possible.

Reprinted with permission Copyright, 2001, Harold Taylor Time Consultants Inc.
Harold Taylor, president of Harold Taylor Time Consultants Inc., regularly conducts public seminars on the effective utilization of time. He can be reached at 1-800-361-8463. His website is www.taylorontime.com.

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