Monday, January 22, 2007

eMail Dynamics @ Work

eMail Dynamics @ Work

Saurabh N. Saklani

Only three things seem certain in the lives of executives—death, taxes, and e-mails. Yes, e-mail is a recent addition in the exalted list of life's certainties thanks to its enormous prominence in our lives today. We often take its use for granted, which is where many of us may be missing a trick or two. Effective e-mailing is a powerful skill and needs a high level of fine-tuning. Unlike a conversation, in this case the reader relies only on your choice of words, format, timing and flow (and even smiley faces) to understand the theme, signal and sense that you want to communicate. Needless to say, this creates a lot of room for misinterpretation, mistakes or miscommunication.

Te growing volume of e-mails that we juggle in our lives dictates that we spend some time figuring out the art and science behind a successful system of handling e-mails. The more gifted among us can (and perhaps already do) use e-mail as an art form by sometimes using the written word better than even the spoken word to communicate, motivate and inform. Many of them add an unprecedented level of efficiency to their communication process by acquiring expertise in email mechanics (such as ease in composing and replying); management (ease of storage, collaboration and sharing ideas with groups); and value addition (the ability to offer well formatted documents as attachments to the e-mail). Fortunately, e-mailing can be learnt and mastered in no time and mostly requires only minor tweaking in our personal style to raise effectiveness.

Following are some simple elements to watch out for when assessing and enhancing your effectiveness as a prodigious e-mailer:

1. Speed Need not Compromise Quality:

No doubt that J versus “I am joking” may often be a fun time saving tactic with friends, but substituting “ ur ” for “your” and more sinfully for “you're” is unforgivable, particularly in more formal e-mails at work. Composers (yes, we all are!) of e-mail need to understand which keyboard minimising battles they want to win and which ones they'd rather not fight. The litmus test for acceptable e-mail lingo is whether it makes or mars the flow and format of the content and emotion that is being communicated. Pay attention to how important the e-mail is: is it formal or informal; is it addressed to new employees or board members; is it being sent to your customer or your boss? That determination alone will dictate the level of flexibility you have in choosing your words (or lack thereof).

Also off-putting is the lack of attention paid to the ‘ subject ' field. We must understand that it is there for a reason. Seeing an array of ‘Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:' is unnerving as is reading ‘Re: Re: Re:' while barely glimpsing the rest of the subject (which, by the way, may have ceased to be the subject of that particular e-mail anyways) in the limited prime real estate on your monitor. Use the ‘subject' line with some thought as it also helps your readers assess the importance and category of that e-mail in their already stressful lives. Remember, “Lunch at 2pm?” in the subject line is more effective than sending a “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: How Cows lost their horns” message embedding the actual content below reams and reams of addresses of friends in an e-mail. Pay attention to the ‘subject' line and change it based on the content you wish to share.

Finally, other simple actions such as running spell-check , using short sentences , and removing irrelevant threads (attached below the email) are little things that have a big impact on improving the quality of your e-mail. All these requirements hardly take any time and are well worth the attention.

2. Enhance Readability with Flow and Format:

Despite various technological breakthroughs and the very nature of our new and competitive world, some pure old fashioned values still hold sway. Sir Winston Churchill once famously remarked “the length of this document defends it well against the risk of its being read.” To a that fate and keeping other potential pitfalls in mind, important e-mail messages at work may be assessed around “3 Principles of Readability” (adapted from What Teens Need But Can't Quite Say , Saurabh Saklani, Rupa Books 2005):

(i) Simplicity: Effective e-mails explore and focus on a few key points and remain concise and sharp. If your e-mail starts resembling passages from Hamlet then it is a good sign that a phone call or a meeting may be more appropriate to handle that particular subject matter. One important thing to note is that the more complex an e-mail, the more room for doubt and misunderstanding.

(ii) Actionability: Effective e-mails use supporting documents that are concise, easy to read and can accept collaboration features such as adding comments and sending RSVP to attend meetings in a seamless way. They also contain links to only those relevant resources on the web that actually work!

(iii) Interactivity: Effective e-mails encourage readers to respond with questions. Also, they utilise easily available work-flow software to make collaborating with colleagues easy and efficient. For example, features such as automatic reminders for meetings and ongoing updates on the progress of a project are some such features of work-flow software that foster interactivity.

The following tips on e-mail etiquette suggests some fairly intuitive ways to maintain a higher level of readability ( 8 e-mail mistakes that make you look bad , Kim Komando, July 2006)

“After facing this tidal wave of electronic words for several years, as well as owning my own business, I've developed some strong opinions about e-mail and correspondents. Here are some easily a able mistakes you should know about to keep your image and inbox in tip-top shape:

• Don't write when you're angry. Wait 24 hours. Calm down. Be reasonable. Have someone else edit your e-mail.

• Don't use sarcasm. You may think you're clever, but the recipient will be put off.

• DON'T USE ALL UPPERCASE! That's the e-mail equivalent of yelling. Your recipient won't be appreciative. Go easy on the exclamation marks, too. Overuse dulls their effectiveness.

• Unless the recipient has previously agreed, don't forward poems, jokes, virus warnings and other things. You're just wasting valuable time and bandwidth.”

3. Just One Final Look:

There are a few non-life threatening yet a able errors we are guilty of carrying in our e-mails from time to time. The good news is that all of them are redeemable with a simple to follow rule—take one final look at your message before sending it to the recipient(s).

The above thumb rule will allow you to a things like forgetting to attach the file that you have promised and referred to in your message; sending the e-mail to unwanted recipients by making the cardinal sin of clicking ‘ reply-to-all' ; and forwarding an e-mail with embedded content you do not wish to share (often causing undue embarrassment or heartache to three entities, namely you the sender, the receiver, and the object of your mutual affection or contempt!).

And make sure that you are not sending viruses to others—a sure shot way to lose friends and offend colleagues. An internet aficionado rightly remarked that “in God we trust, all others we virus scan.”


The author is the founder of Good Knowledge Consultants that specialises in entrepreneurship, leadership and organisational development. Prior to receiving an MBA from INSEAD, he founded a software consulting company in Silicon Valley and also helped implement a successful mentoring programme for young entrepreneurs at The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). He is the author of 'What Teens Need But Can't Quite Say' (Rupa). Saurabh plays competitive squash and enjoys golf and yoga.

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