The First Five Commandments of E-mail

E-mail has been around for a long time now and most of us take it for granted, whether our use of the medium dates back to the 1980s, when e-mail was a technology for the few (principally in academia and the military), or since the 1990s, when e-mail went mainstream.

Regardless of the fact that Millennials constantly remind us that “it’s for old people,” e-mail is firmly part of corporate culture. And yet, unlike the formal ways many of us were taught to write business letters or memos, e-mail has by and large evolved without any accepted rules for how best to employ it. We use e-mail regularly and unconsciously, often without realizing that it’s the first way people may come to know us. As ever, the devil is in the details: how we come across in e-mail can have a significant impact on others’ perceptions of us as leaders, colleagues, and people.

While Moses brought us Ten Commandments, for now we’re offering just Five Commandments for e-mail. If there’s enough reader interest (and some suggestions for other Commandments) we may follow up with five more in a later newsletter.

THE FIRST FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF E-MAIL

One: Never use e-mail for conversations that should happen face-to-face or, at least, via a telephone call. (This is the first and greatest Commandment.) E-mail is a remarkably poor medium for having complex or difficult conversations. Face-to-face interactions allow sight with sound (gestures, facial expressions, intonations) as well as the possibility of dialogue, while telephone calls at least offer sound and dialogue. E-mail reduces everything to the words alone, which comprise a small part of the meaning in communication. E-mail is a fantastic medium for sharing information or completing simple transactions, but it’s ineffective—and often counterproductive—for working through conflict. Here’s a red flag: if you are using e-mail to communicate with someone because doing so feels less uncomfortable, re-think your strategy.

Two: Do not confuse e-mail with instant messaging or texting. Thanks to visionaries at Blackberry and Apple, we can now take our e-mail with us everywhere if we choose to do so; no longer must we wait until we get to a desktop computer. That said, many executives, especially the most senior ones, don’t stay plugged into their e-mail accounts all day long. Consider when your recipient is likely to open her e-mail, and never use e-mail for urgent communication. Some people do treat e-mail and text messaging interchangeably, but many do not—so with your most important relationships (especially business partners and clients) confirm their preferences. (E-mailing that you’re “running late” two minutes before a meeting is about to start is a particularly bad practice, especially if you do it often.) Recall that the root of “e-mail” is “mail,” that genteel mode of communication which allows recipients to reflect and reply on their own timetable, not instantly.

Three: Use subject lines, thoughtfully. This commandment has two parts. First, use a subject line—don’t treat it as an option. Second, choose one that captures the essence of your communication and makes the reader want to open the e-mail. Individualized subject lines (“Strategic Sourcing Meeting Agenda,” “Need Input on ABC Proposal,” “Response to Your Inquiry about Bridget,” “Los Angeles on Thursday?”) stand out in a crowded in-box much better than generic ones (“Hello,” “Meeting,” and the dreaded “Re: re: re: re: re: re:”). Some organizations are prone to long strings of e-mails, wherein the point of the e-mail evolves over many responses while the subject line reflects the original e-mail. This kind of communication presents its own problems, so when you notice it, consider changing the subject line to reflect the new subject.

Four: Be clear about your objectives. Most managers and leaders receive a great many e-mails every day. Not everyone has a long attention span (we live, after all, in the era of TL:DR), and people reading on a device (most of us these days) are constrained by small screen size, which can make reading a long e-mail both challenging and frustrating. Generally speaking, a good e-mail has only one topic or objective, and the action requested of the recipient(s) is stated clearly and concisely right at the beginning. You might even consider starting some subject lines with “ACTION” or “Response Required” (or even “Not Urgent”) to flag what you’re asking from the recipient. In the case of a longer e-mail, or one with multiple topics or requests, it’s helpful to frame things at the start. “I need your input, ideally before close of business tomorrow, on three important decisions, listed below” or “In a nutshell we’ve determined that UVW looks like a better joint venture partner than XYX, but I wanted to provide you with some background and context on this decision.”

Five: Be deliberate about the recipients of your e-mails. God created the cc: and bcc: lines for specific reasons. Much as you must think carefully about whom you are inviting to a meeting, you should have a clear rationale for who gets the e-mail and who is copied. If your e-mail has a clear and specific objective (per Commandment Four) then the proper recipient(s) should be evident. Don’t spam or carpet bomb with e-mail. And don’t use the cc: to cover your butt: it’s immature, ineffective, and transparently obvious. Be particularly careful about a bcc:, because even those copied blindly have the power to “reply all,” and may do so unintentionally. (For safety we recommend avoiding bcc: entirely: if others need to know anonymously about an e-mail from you, forward it to them after sending it.) Furthermore, keep the recipient list up to date: when responding to an e-mail, consider eliminating those who no longer need to be copied—or adding others who now do. If everyone pruned their to: and cc: lines to ensure that only the critical people remained on a thread, e-mail overload would decline noticeably. Finally, if you’re a recipient on a group e-mail, use the “reply all” option when everyone on the e-mail does need to hear your response. (It can be infuriating how many people use the “reply all” when not needed, and then don’t use it when it is needed. And remember that there’s a special place in Hell for people who “reply all” just to type “yup” or “me too.”)

We humbly present these First Five Commandments of E-mail, if not direct from Mt. Sinai then at least from several decades of reading e-mail with both pleasure and irritation. Let us know if you think there are other important E-mail Commandments (newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com) and perhaps we’ll generate five more for a second tablet.

“Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of e-mails. … [W]hen they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not ….”
--Plato, Phaedrus [substituting “e-mail” for “speech”]