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Aristotle's rules can help your e-mail

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

More than 2,500 years ago, Aristotle identified principles for public presentation known as the five canons of rhetoric. He developed these when the most common (and, for many, the only) mode of communication was face to face.

Through the centuries, the Greek philosopher's principles were studied and used by notable orators around the world. But do his ancient teachings stand the test of time in our faceless, monitor-to-monitor e-mail world?


The basic purpose of any form of communication is to transfer information so the audience receives and understands it. If the audience understands the information presented, it is able to make critical decisions. Today, we call this "knowing your agenda."

For e-mail, this principle is crucial. The ease of using e-mail often masks the ultimate reason for using it. Sending an e-mail is equivalent to presenting information to an intended audience. The key elements we need to consider are why it is being sent and what information is being conveyed. Will the e-mail provide information that is easy to comprehend and digest or will it be a morass of words on a monitor?

Applying the principle: It's important to sell your message using the subject line. Put some action, emphasis and creativity in the process. Most people will make their decisions on reading and responding to your e-mail on this basis. Always make sure that your subject line reflects the nature of your message. What you write in the opening of your message must convey what you want the reader to do with this information. This may seem too sudden a progression for our tastes, but remember that you have an action-oriented subject line working with you to prepare the reader for your message.


What does your audience need to know and how do you get it interested in what you have to say? The information should be framed and organized in a manner so that your audience will understand you and will be persuaded by your view point. We could call this "knowing your audience."

An e-mail can capture an audience if it is the right message intended for the right person. The send button should not be seen as a gateway to bring your message to a wider audience. E-mails need to be tailored to their specific receivers. The information in an e-mail captures receiver attention when it is relevant to their work and delivered in a timely fashion. Greater care in this area would significantly reduce workplace e-mail traffic. The ability to send messages to multiple parties is seen as a great benefit of the e-mail system. Using wide-audience features such as cc, reply to all and distribution lists are not.

Applying the principle: Engage your audience by showing you are considering its point of view and not only your own. There is a subtle, yet powerful difference between using the phrases "I want to meet with you" and "Could we meet?" - the first one demands, the other requests. Always keep your e-mails personable for best effect.


This is the creation of a body of information that is logical and compelling. How ideas are described through correct use of language is as important as the ideas themselves. We could call this "structuring the message."

Generally, e-mails are short messages conveying specific information. Receivers expect to spend seconds, not minutes, judging the content of a message. Therefore, e-mails need to come to the point right away. As we saw with the subject line and first sentence, the entire message should be designed to convey high-impact information. E-mails that hold us hostage by reversing this order create tension and waste time.

Applying the principle: Take care in laying out the information in your e-mails. Use paragraphs, subheadings, bolded key words and bullet points to add emphasis and make the message more readable. Another tip for keeping your messages structured is to use shorter sentences. The shorter the sentence, the easier it is for us to understand its meaning. A sentence with 19 words has an 80-per-cent comprehension rate, whereas a sentence with eight words has 100-per-cent comprehension - true support for the case where less is really more.


Aristotle held that speakers should be well prepared and rehearsed so they can easily depart from the planned flow of the presentation if needed. At a moment's notice, they should be able to discuss related issues that the audience raises or reframe the original dialogue in different ways. We might call this one "knowing your subject."

In our cut-and-paste world, it is far too easy to put materials into an e-mail that are not original or an expression of our own views. Just as in presentations that are too rehearsed, the audience may begin to suspect that e-mail information is out of character for the sender's knowledge level. In these situations, the receiver is more apt to follow up on the information to satisfy him/herself that it is genuine. The inability of a sender to support the e-mail or provide greater context during a conversation will cast doubt not only on the current situation, but on subsequent ones.

Applying the principle: Refrain from using language in your e-mails that may be the least bit suspect or not a good representation of your views. It takes focus to craft a good e-mail. Be cognizant of the ramifications of sending careless e-mails. It's far better not to send a message if you have any doubts as to its shared meaning, so don't put pressure on yourself to compose (or borrow) and then send.


This refers to the use of all logical elements available for effectively presenting information to an audience. This could include tone, volume and gestures. In our highly graphic world, it's much more important to create messages that are highly informative, not highly designed. We could term this "keeping it simple."

Using e-mail should be a choice for conveying information, not a default. Is e-mail the right medium for the message or should it be delivered using another medium? There is no doubt that we can put any and every message into text form. This does not mean we should.

The availability and easy access of e-mail should not be confused with providing the correct platform for a message. We may frustrate our ability to structure an effective message, especially for more complex ideas. This is particularly true in information that requires a fuller expression between parties, such as concepts and ideas.

This is also true with sending attachments, as proxies for presentations, that are too dense to be stand-alone information.

Applying the principle: As a personal audit, ask yourself whether you need to send the entire e-mail thread, that attachment or Web link, the message acknowledging receipt or the items forwarded to you.

A quick check on these items, especially from the perspective of the receiving party, will do wonders for your e-mail sending profile. Try to keep your underlying messages refreshed and clean of superfluous materials.

It has also become all too easy to use images and short forms to convey meaning. Acronyms, symbols and emoticons (a short form of the words emotion and icon), have been all the rage in certain circles, usually outside the workplace. For those of us who are acquainted with these items, don't use them at work.

Not only are they considered by many to be unprofessional, but the vast majority of workplace e-mail users don't even know what some of these are or what they mean. It's far better to create good tone and understanding in your e-mails by spelling out your message. Use of symbols will only confuse the message, possibly taking it out of its intended context.

In comparing e-mail, our newest communication channel, to the time-worn principles of public presentation, we do see a pattern emerge. E-mail may be quick and cheap, but its use implies creating that all-important shared understanding, monitor to monitor.

Presentations that do not strike the right chord with audiences are immediately noticed. The level of response or reaction is usually low. We can now see that sending a poorly composed e-mail can have the same impact.

What makes this an even greater issue than in presentations is exposure - we send many more e-mails throughout a work week. This gives us a regular opportunity to show our clients and co-workers whether we are able to create shared understanding through our electronic messages.

As Aristotle said: "We are what we repeatedly do."

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Christina Cavanagh is a professor at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business and author of Managing E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox, to be published in August.