Friday, May 11, 2012

E-mail 101 / Back to the Basics

As a governmental tax auditor by day, sometimes it's hard to find office time for writing projects.  That only makes sense.  Some of you may have noticed, however, that I've recently begun writing for a variety of agency or workforce related publications to broaden my experience in what I call "Communications 101." 

So far, my writing has been well received.  It's started some interesting dialogue with my colleagues in state service.  I've been waiting a few weeks to share the latest, but I think the editor must be experiencing some technical difficulties.  

Since not many of you would see the little publication anyway, and I'm not charging for it, I thought I'd go ahead and offer my readers a sneak peek today.  Later, when it's available online I'll probably add a little update to this post.  (Original publisher is International Association of Workforce Professional's Oregonizer.)  

As an aside here, please also see my piece on adaptive communications.  I'm likely going to continue writing these communication pieces with hopes that it will help my eventual transition from number-cruncher to more of a public affairs position with the state.  Hope you like it!

Back to the Basics, E-mail 101


Karl B. Erickson

Electronic mail has become such an integral part of our daily lives that it might be helpful if we took a step back and examined the way we use e-mail in a fresh light.  Whether you’re an electronic whiz kid or someone’s whose VCR still is blinking “12,” I hope that you will take something good away today.  To that end, I’d like to quickly discuss two main areas relating to e-mail communications: organization and etiquette.  
It always surprises me when someone with a messy or cluttered desk can know precisely where something is, removing the desired item deftly from an overflowing stack of papers.  When it comes to e-mail, though, the overflowing inbox approach isn’t usually the path to success.  Unknowingly, you may be missing important messages.  At the very least, it will slow you down.  If you find yourself with an overflowing inbox, try investing an hour to rein it in.  
First, go through your messages and delete anything that really doesn’t need to be saved; be brutal.  Don’t be an e-mail hoarder!  Second, try creating folders for categories of messages, and then transfer those messages out of your inbox.  Third, for messages being retained related to appointments, try copy/pasting the message into the comment or detail section of the calendar appointment—and don’t forget to delete or file away the associated e-mail.  Fourth, remove your e-mail address from unnecessary distribution lists.  (Do you really need the daily cute cat photo?)  Fifth, don’t forward “chain letters” and similar spam.  Your co-workers will thank you, and this will also reduce the likelihood of inadvertently spreading malware or a virus (usually via e-mail attachments).
How do we feel as shoppers when we’re on the receiving end of poor customer service?  Usually, it gets under our skin, but we may avoid taking the time or effort in following-up on the matter.  It’s not an astonishing revelation to point out that most everyone with whom we work and interact each and every day at the office is a kind of customer.  E-mail etiquette includes everything from the language we use to its tone and other characteristics.  When it comes to language, for example, are we keeping our messages clear and concise, or do we tend rely heavily upon acronyms, inconsistent abbreviations, or office jargon?  We should try to tailor our message for the person(s) to whom it’s directed.  That’s called adaptive communication.
Tone (the way things are said, or the message behind the message) can be challenging, but the key again is tailoring it for the audience—and being courteous.  We all should know by now to avoid using all caps or repeated punctuation marks; most everyone recognizes it as rude. Bear in mind that a brief salutation of some kind can be a good way to begin a message—as opposed to starting immediately with what you want.  (It’s also a way of reminding yourself that you’re writing a human being and not a computer.)  Another way to ensure appropriate courtesy is imagining that everyone may someday read a particular message.  Be careful about assuming something will remain anonymous or confidential.  Speaking of confidential, take care never to e-mail Social Security Numbers or passwords; that’s just asking for trouble.
Whatever we might be doing at the office, most professional interactions can be described as involving customers (internal or external) in one way or another.  That being the case, ensure that your communications are clear and respectful.  Your colleagues will thank you for it!


  1. Great things to keep in mind, Karl, thanks. May I also suggest that senders not neglect the subject line as a tool in organization. Concise subject lines, with project names (where applicable) at the front, are very helpful. Incredibly vague subject lines that read anything like, "That stuff you asked for" and "New policy" are the least helpful. (Putting abbreviated due dates right in the subject line is also appreciated!)

  2. Thanks, Bill. Thanks for adding your thoughts!