Dodge’s Email Rules of Thumb
John Silliman Dodge
FMQB June 24, 2005
During the mid-90's, I took a four-year sabbatical from radio to work in the tech sector because I predicted, accurately it turns out now, that technology would revolutionize the media. I worked for Microsoft among others, and what I recall most vividly about my time spent in Redmond was the silence. No hallway conversations, no ringing telephones, just the low hum of hard drives and the incessant tap-tap-tapping of keyboards. Everybody sending email to the guy next door.
When I first heard the term, it sounded just a little too precious and futuristic. Oh, I get it, "electronic mail." But then I received my first reply one minute after sending the message and Boom! Based on instant gratification alone, I knew this would be big. Ten years later this nifty trick from the mid-90s has become a primary mode of communication.
Email may be the biggest thing ever, but it's also a big double-edge sword. Now we're drowning in the stuff. We're suffering an information pandemic. We're daily dependent upon a tool we really don't know how to use all that well. But at least the demand for good writing is back. We nearly lost it there for a while.
In the days before telephones and television, people read books and expressed themselves through writing letters, diaries, journals. The mailman visited a couple of times a day. Then came electronic media and we began our gradual slouch toward illiteracy. But the nearly universal adoption of email has placed renewed emphasis on the importance of good writing skills to your career. Today, the person who knows how to express himself clearly, succinctly, assertively, creatively-usually wins. And if you don't have these skills, everybody knows about it because everybody reads your mail every day.
If we're going to lean so heavily on this tool, let's
learn to master it. Here are a dozen "rules" for efficient and effective
emailing I've picked up while cruising the Infobahn, and I offer these
useful tips for your review. Let's call them Dodge's
Email Rules of Thumb:
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Subject Please? What's our
topic here? Clear and compelling subject lines help your reader quickly
determine what's most important, which of his 75 different messages
he needs to view first. Let's see, should I open the one called "Hey"
or the one called "Budgets Due by 5 pm Today." Hmm. And should your
topic drift over the course of an email exchange, please change the
subject line. Otherwise you'll be talking about an important station
promotion while your subject line still reads "King Tut Exhibit."
Get It Up Front. Don't bury
the important points of your message three lines deep in paragraph
three. Readers today have a form of ADD induced by communication overload,
so make your point and make it early. Often times, between a compelling
subject line and the first two short sentences, a reader using the
preview function doesn't even have to open your message to know what
it means and what to do about it. That's effective.
Less is More. Like fewer
commercials, fewer words make for less clutter and greater impact.
So feel free to write all you like, just be sure you trash about three-quarters
of it before you hit Send. The result will always be punchier, more
powerful, and more quickly read and responded to. Should your email
scroll longer than a page, make a call or go face to face.
Never Hit Send Until. Ever hit Send only
to realize that you misspelled someone’s name or made a major
grammatical error? Proofreading takes an extra minute, but it can
save a lot of embarrassment and confusion down the line. What seems
perfectly clear to you may or may not read so clearly to others. You
want your message to be interpreted in one way and one way only—exactly
how you meant it. Also, a rereading gives you a chance to include
that attachment you forgot to attach. Slow down, reread, then hit
Email is Forever. Lawyers
tell you “never write a letter and never throw one away.”
That’s because they deal in incriminating evidence. But we need
to communicate with each other. Just remember that email may feel
private, but it’s a very public channel. Your messages probably
shouldn’t contain material you wouldn’t want to see splashed
all over the New York Times. And leave the flames for the backyard
barbeque. What you feel in the heat of the moment may pass in time,
but once your words are committed to digits, you’re history.
Dave Who? If you are like
me, you have—and I swear—35 different Dave’s in
your address book. Which Dave are we talking to here? It makes you
look careless to send a message to Dave A which you meant to send
to Dave B. Not just careless but embarrassing, particularly if you’re
telling Dave B what a knucklehead Dave A is. Be certain your recipient
is the person you have in mind
The Power of the Face. We
sometimes use email as a substitute for direct, personal communication.
Or worse, we use it as a distancing device when we have a difficult
issue to resolve with an individual. As a leader, your primary responsibility
is to manage and motivate your people. So when touchy matters arise,
or when personal persuasion is required, don’t let email stand
in your way. Step away from the computer and make a call or pay a
Work Now, Play Later. We’re
pretty busy here, right? Everyone working pretty hard? Jokes, funnies,
gossip, smiley faces, emoticons, pie-in-the-face videos, all this
wonderful stuff has its rightful place. It’s called the
CC = CYA. Don’t copy
someone on a message unless they absolutely have to see the thread.
And please don’t copy your boss on everything you do. You think
it makes you appear more productive or effective, but what you’re
really doing is wasting his or her time following the boring details
of all your conversations.
Reply All. The evil twin
of CC. Before you automatically hit Reply to All, ask yourself, “Who
needs to know?” It’s usually a much smaller list than
you think. Be courteous and respect people’s time.
Word Power Rules. Take away
body language, which accounts for close to 90% of the important cues
we use in our personal communication, and you place 100% of the responsibility
on the 10% that remains—the words. Clearly, we need to pick
and choose those words more carefully than we do. All those subtle,
ironic, sarcastic, absurd things we say which work so well with the
accompanying twinkle of the eye can easily get lost in translation.
Spell Czech. Spelling and
grammar checkers let you commit unbelievably stupid errors. Use these
tools but don’t depend on them. There’s simply no shortcut
to being your own proofreader. I frequently print out longer messages
or articles (like this one) because I catch things on paper that I
miss on screen.
We’ve hit the highlights with these dozen tips
for more effective email communication, so let’s recap. Remember
that email works best when it’s just one among many communication
tools. Don’t try to lead or persuade or argue or otherwise manage
your relationships with it. For those scenarios, you need your complete
tool kit. The more commonplace email becomes, the more important good
writing skills become. We can work on that. And the more universal
email becomes, the more important face time becomes. Remember that
if you forget everything else.