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An Email Evolution

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Most of us have mastered basic e-mail etiquette at work.

We don't, for example, use all-capitals for typing or add exclamation points to underscore our original position. Our workplace e-mails usually have subject lines and we are forwarding fewer chain mail and joke messages.

Thanks to spam and viruses, we're also much more aware of the challenges of e-mail management. We're deleting non-essential messages faster and filing the keepers in separate folders to keep our inboxes more manageable.

Now it's time to move on and hone our e-mail skills. Here are some tips to help:

Use descriptive subject lines: The subject line announces the core nature of your message and helps to keep your writing focused. You benefit from taking advantage of some advanced planning in crafting your message.

The receiver is better able to prioritize and select your message at a time of day appropriate for them. For example, if you want to set up a meeting with someone don't just insert the word "Meeting" in the subject line, as this is too ambiguous and forces the reader to open your message. Use a more specific approach such as "Can we meet this week?" to make your intentions very clear and permit the reader to select your message with advance knowledge of its content.

As an added benefit, descriptive subject lines help us sort legitimate messages from the virus and spam varieties.

State your purpose first: As with the subject line, this is another area that requires greater attention. In our time-starved workplaces every minute counts, especially when it comes to dealing with high e-mail volumes. By stating at the start of the e-mail what you expect the receiver to do with your message, you reduce the time it takes the recipient to figure out what you expect, so your message is certain to receive greater attention. Examples of stated expectations and receiver actions are information requests, decisions, approvals, advice, feedback or "sent for your information." Tell your readers up front what you want.

Reread messages before sending: This may seem like a less-efficient method to deal with e-mails, but it pays many dividends. Rereading your message before sending serves two purposes: First, it allows you to check the tone and content of the message from the reader's perspective, that is, is it clear and concise? Is it formatted for easy reading? And second, spellcheckers cannot discern mistyped words such as feel versus fell, you versus your or seat versus sat or set. We value clean, error-free messages more than the speed we use to send them.

Keep your inbox clean: Using electronic folders is a very efficient way to store messages. It is also an important strategy for e-mail time management, allowing us to reserve our inboxes for dealing with current items. Too often our inboxes are cluttered with old messages. We know we should be dispensing with them but time or technique preclude us from doing so. A fat inbox is like an overstuffed cupboard - neither are a pleasure to open andboth make us feel guilty.

Are you afraid you'll be filing your messages into a vortex, where you won't be able to locate them or remember enough of the details to source the contents months later? The best way to retrieve with confidence is to file in a similar manner -- either change the message's subject line or add your own key words to the existing one prior to filing it.

With most software packages, all you need to do is resave the changed message and it's ready for the electronic stacks.

Be wary of attachments: The proliferation of cleverly disguised virus messages has meant that you should never open an unsolicited attachment. Viruses are not spread through the message itself, so your system cannot be harmed if you open an e-mail and realize you're dealing with something suspicious. It's the next step you take that is most critical. Always default to deleting the message -- never launch an attached file, no matter how colourful, how interesting, or how intriguing it is, unless you are absolutely certain of its provenance and its contents. There should be a new adage for attachments: Curiosity killed the computer.

Avoid controversial content: We're all supposed to know this one by now, but it bears repeating. One of the more difficult situations faced with workplace e-mail is establishing what constitutes appropriate content. Whether it's an outpouring of dissatisfaction or an e-mail meant to be kept private, you put yourself at considerable risk when you use electronic communication.

In the first instance, putting e-mail ahead of what should have been a conversation tends to worsen the situation. The receiver, who in these cases is usually in authority, wonders why the message was sent in the first place -- it really weakens the sender's negotiating position. In the second instance, thanks to the ease of forwarding, your e-mail can end up in the strangest places imaginable. Disparaging remarks and office in-jokes, those juicy e-mails, often travel around offices and countries like boomerangs, eventually making their way back to the original sender, usually creating embarrassment and dismay. The best way to control message content is to never take what you put on the e-mail system lightly.

Insert the receiver's address last: This prevents you from accidentally launching an incomplete, incorrect or unedited message. This is an especially good idea when wrestling with a controversial e-mail, but it is a good habit to develop for all electronic messaging. It's easy to do when creating a new message.

When dealing with a reply, simply cut the receiver's address out of the TO: line and paste it back in after rereading the final message (or paste it in the body of the e-mail if you need to use your mouse for other functions in between). Learning to consider the receiver's address as the icing on the e-mail cake, not the starting point, will guarantee accident-free messaging and save potential discomfort.

The goal is to be efficient and productive in using your e-mail systems. And it's worth the effort.

First, you are more confident that your messages are well-crafted and properly conceived; you save time in creation and save our readers' time with easily understood messages. Second, sending better messages can become infectious and you'll soon begin receiving equally succinct, relevant ones in return, saving you time in handling your inbox. So, take control and begin your own e-mail evolution.

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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 Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox.