Of all the technologies that have emerged for communications in the last couple of decades, e-mail is among the most revolutionary. It has completely changed the way we communicate, making it so much easier than any other method that has been available in the past 20 years.
At one time, typewriters were a critical element for communicating via U.S. Mail. It was such a slow and cumbersome process. I still remember struggling to align the paper, and making a correction was very, very difficult.
However, despite all the improvements and efficiencies e-mail brought, there are a number of issues of which users should be aware. By far, the most important of these is that once you hit send, it is nearly impossible to recover or amend the message.
In light of this, proofreading is absolutely critical. And more than just checking for grammatical errors, you should be verifying that you have said exactly what you mean and are aware of how your message might be interpreted.
Additionally, e-mail and emotion are a dangerous combination. If you are having strong feelings of any kind — positive or negative — it is best to wait until your emotions settle before hitting send. The fallout from an inappropriate e-mail can be devastating.
I have seen managers send out an angry e-mail to a staff member who messed up, only to realize later that they acted before they had all the facts. The damage from this kind of e-mail can never be repaired.
Another shortcoming of e-mail is that it is a flat form of communication. Consisting of nothing more than words, it is impossible to communicate emotion via e-mail. People often forget this fact and send e-mail messages that really should be delivered in person.
Sending an e-mail to congratulate a team member on some accomplishment, for example, may fall short of the mark since you can not really express your feelings of joy. You would really want to deliver a message like this in a face-to-face meeting or in front of his or her entire team.
Most people, including me, get way too many e-mails, and one thing that absolutely drives me crazy is receiving a message that covers three or four different items. Sending a message like this significantly impairs the receiver’s ability to respond quickly.
When I receive e-mails that cover more than one topic, it automatically drops down on my priority list because I have to save the message until I have more time to respond. For this reason, it is so important to cover only one point in each message. You will find that people will respond much more quickly to one-topic e-mails.
Another of my e-mail pet peeves is long narratives. Most decision makers want just the facts. E-mail is not a good place to practice Elegant Writing 101. I want an e-mail that is no longer than one paragraph so I can quickly respond with a short answer. Most people are so limited on time that brevity must be the rule and not the exception with this medium.
The subject line is another critical element. In order to get your message read, the subject line must be both precise and accurate. One entrepreneur wrote “important” in the subject line of every single e-mail she sent. Eventually, her staff began ignoring her messages. The more precise your subject line, the more successful the communication will be.
Lastly, e-mail should not be used to communicate anything that is really important or personal. If you want to tell a staff member about a problem you are having with their work, e-mail is just not appropriate.
For instance, if I have an employee that has not been meeting their sales goals, sending them an e-mail about improving their numbers is going to do more to irritate them than accomplish anything of value. It really is best to address an issue like this in a face-to-face meeting that allows you to discuss how you can work with them to improve their sales.
Overall, e-mail is a very effective communication tool, but it should not be your default. It is just not always going to be the appropriate choice. Now go out and make sure that you are using e-mails effectively in your organization.
Jerry Osteryoung, director of outreach of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.