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E-mail: Don't be a sender offender

Report on Business: Globe Careers, The Globe and Mail

Have you just fired off an e-mail, your signoff punctuated with a smiley face?

Couldn't be bothered to hit the shift key to capitalize the letters at the beginning of each sentence? Too lazy to change the subject line from a previous message? Copied the e-mail to every department head -- even those who have nothing to do with its contents?

You are a sender offender. You've just committed some of the biggest transgressions of e-mail communication.

It's been only a decade since e-mail came into widespread workplace use. Now that the technology has become second nature, too many users are still making the wrong decisions about the in-box.

Since impressions are created by words on a computer screen and judgments are made about your communication prowess, you'd better make the right decisions before you press the send button.

It's time to revisit the rules of smartly writing and handling workplace e-mails.

The Queen's English

The basic toolkit for proper writing includes punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, grammar and spelling.

But thanks to the short, cryptic bursts of the BlackBerry and the casual codes of instant messaging, you has turned into u and the shift key has been deleted.

Using all capital letters was one of the first e-mail etiquette transgressions, the electronic form of shouting. Now the opposite -- all lower-case messages -- is the bane. Full sentence structure has also gone by the wayside.

The best rule for workplace correspondence: err on the side of formality, using the Queen's English as it was originally intended.

Emoticons and acronyms

The electronic convenience craze has also created its own symbols in the form of emoticons, like those ubiquitous smiley faces, and symbols such as TLA -- which means three-letter acronym.

For professional communication, emoticons and TLAs are far too informal. Moreover, their use can create hidden problems.

First, not every user knows what they are, so using them to convey style or mood could backfire. Second, making emoticons or TLAs part of your common writing repertoire may create a negative impression of your skills and abilities.

When you're communicating with people you know well and your e-mail is minor or routine, indulge. Otherwise, if your e-mail is going to make a recipient LOL (laugh out loud), let your words do the job.

Design and style

The look of workplace e-mails also counts. To process what's on the screen efficiently and least painfully, electronic messages must be easy to read and view.

So avoid the use of watermarks and wallpaper, which are distracting and slow down the ability to process the message.

And when it comes to font type and size, keep to the standard array -- serif fonts, such as Times New Roman, or san serif, such as Arial, in the 10- to 12-point range. Using these fonts, along with paragraph spacing and bullet points, produces quickly absorbed material.

A cautionary note on auto-signatures: keep them civilized. These automatic signoffs are meant to show the type of contact information that would appear on a business card. Auto-signatures that are flowery or graphics-laden -- or have a full verse of your favourite rock song, several homilies or your abbreviated résumé -- are taboo.

Responding to messages

"Reply to all" may be the most abused and reviled function in the e-mail arsenal.

Sending a message to a group in one keystroke is an e-mail blessing -- but receiving the swamp of useless responses is the opposing curse.

Reply-to-all misuse is on the rise because many senders figure it's the best method for group communication. Better to have one person manage outflow and inflow, then send a single response.

Don't use reply-to-all to provide commentary to the group. If you're asked for an opinion or options for a meeting, respond only to the sender. As a sender of group messages, remind people in your e-mail to respond only to you. Help keep inboxes unclogged.

Another one to avoid: the cc (carbon copy) function. Too many users assume all correspondence should be automatically copied to everyone on their e-mail list.

But not everybody has to, or wants to, be in the e-mail loop. One executive told me that he made his feelings about being on the cc list clear by sending back unnecessary messages with "s.s.s." in the subject line. When senders asked the meaning of the new code, they were politely told to "stop sending shit."

Acknowledgments are another problem, deciding when the communication cycle should end. Sending one-word thanks may seem polite but it means you create another message that someone else must read and delete. If you've made an extraordinary request where extra time and effort was involved, acknowledge; otherwise, move on.

Subject line

This is the most critical part of any e-mail, conveying the message content to the recipient. The worst transgression: using an old subject line. The other common error: insufficient information to make your message distinct.

A subject line should be treated like a newspaper headline, designed to draw attention directly to the content. Craft it first and let this guide your thoughts. And when you respond, alter it.

Message length

How long should an e-mail be? Long enough to convey a succinct thought that is meaningful and actionable by the receiver. The general rule: no more than one screen length.

Overly long messages fall into two types -- those that ramble on too long (cull excessive detail) and those covering several subjects (one thought, one message).

Indiscriminate use

E-mailing with complete abandon wreaks havoc on efficiency.

I once received, in error, a series of messages from a company about a corporate golf tournament. This exchange was routed through eight people, resulting in 48 useless e-mails. More time was spent deleting them than anything real being accomplished. Worse, I had nothing to do with the tournament; this missive was attached at the bottom of a totally unrelated message. The lesson: Make sure each message has value.

Channel choice

When do you send off an e-mail instead of picking up a phone or calling a meeting?

The answer lies in the complexity of information. If something requires real consideration and thought, it might be better to talk over the phone or face-to-face.

Choose the medium that helps you cut the clutter and get to the issues faster -- not default to e-mail because it seems so convenient.

Remember, too, that e-mail is instant delivery, not instant receipt. Don't assume the minute you hit the send button, someone is at the other end to receive.

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Christina Cavanagh is the author of Managing Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox.