Three tips for more effective e-mailing

Dealing with the deluge, smarter addressing, bottoms up

E-mail leads the deluge of information for most workers. So let's deal with the deluge, use addressing fields correctly, and look at e-mail writing from the bottom up.

We have days for lovers (Valentine’s Day) and for heroes (Memorial Day), so why not a day for e-mail (Information Overload Awareness Day)? The Information Overload presentation was about far more than just e-mail, but e-mail leads the deluge of information for most workers. So let's deal with the deluge, use addressing fields correctly, and look at e-mail writing from the bottom up.

According to the excellent book Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, workers in Fortune 1000 companies spend four hours per day, every day, working with e-mail. That sounds both like information overload and like a normal day for far too many people. If you say you get 200 e-mail messages per day, looking for sympathy, the one-uppers around will start telling you about inboxes with 300 or 400 or more messages. Has the e-mail deluge become a badge of honor? Or is admitting you can't handle your e-mail workload somehow newsworthy?

Many ideas during Information Overload Day addressed the e-mail problem, but we only have time to look at one: occasional abstinence. After e-mail and various interruptions, the average white-collar knowledge worker has only 12% of the day left for actual thinking (insert your favorite idiot vice president joke here). By declaring two mornings or afternoons each week “e-mail free zones” you can reclaim some time for yourself and your thoughts.

It sounds easy, but you won't be able to make this work for about three weeks. The urge to check e-mail during your assigned “out of the inbox” times will overwhelm your good intentions for weeks. If you can do it the first week, let me know, and I'll award you the Mentally Tough Certificate suitable for framing.

After five or six half-days attempting to go e-mail-less, you'll start to realize the world goes on even if you're not checking your inbox. Repeat after me: If I were on a plane, I couldn't check e-mail. If I were at a funeral, I couldn't check e-mail. If I were in the hospital, I couldn't check e-mail. Repeat these enough, and you'll be able to ignore the Siren call of e-mail for four hours twice a week. After you make this a habit, you'll be amazed at how much more you can get done.

Let me suggest you turn off any type of e-mail arrival announcement on your computer or BlackBerry all the time, not just your two sessions of peace. When interrupted by the “ding” of new e-mail, your speeding thoughts hit a bridge abutment, and you can't regain your focus until about five times longer than the interruption. No ding, more peace.

If you can't wean yourself away from e-mail for an entire morning or afternoon, try to curb your addiction at least a little. I've had good luck modifying the old Dr. Pepper slogan of “10-2-4” (suggesting what times of day to drink a Dr. Pepper) to when to check e-mail. Just turn off the announcements and check e-mail on your schedule, not your inbox's schedule.

When you are back in the e-mail swamp, reader Thomas has a good idea. Following up my earlier Seven Ways to Improve Your E-mail Messages, Thomas added one thing he's learned about BCC addresses, probably the hard way. Use them for messages with many addressees and that will cut down on all the “Me too” responses from people who stupidly hit the “reply all” button before sending their worthless e-mail. One person hits reply all, another 29 send a message about the mistake, and you suddenly have 212 messages when only one was necessary. Since Thomas works in a federal bureaucracy, I'm guessing this happens regularly.

Reader Thomas also strongly suggests not using the BCC to send copies to people who shouldn't have them. Why? They will come back and bite you in the butt. If a person supposedly out of the discussion loop jumps in where she shouldn't, you'll get the blame every time. This tip from Thomas has the painful aura of personal experience, don't you think? And if your BCC buddy responds with some snarky remark, you're almost guaranteed to hit “reply all” by accident when returning your own snarky remark. That aura of personal experience comes from Your Humble Narrator.

Finally, I saw an article on EveryJoe describing a beautifully simple way to improve your e-mails: write them backwards. This was attributed to Robby Slaughter of Slaughter Development in Indiana, but I can't verify that because Mr. Slaughter hasn't answered my e-mail. Sigh.

Common e-mail composition problems include forgetting the attachment, too much information in the body of the message, a poor subject, and sending the message to the wrong people. So write your e-mails in that order: attachment, message body, subject, addressees.

When you attach your files first, you won't forget them (if you have a file attachment, of course). When you write your message text, focus on the single bit of information you are providing or the request you are making of the recipient. If you're attaching a file, the message text should address the recipient's responsibility for the attached file or files. Edit and return? Agree or not? Forward to the boss? Explain exactly why you're sending the person a file, and what you want them to do with that file.

This bottoms-up rule may be even more important when you don't have a file attached. Focus on the reason for your e-mail and include only that reason. Relay information or make your request, then stop writing. The longer the e-mail, the longer people will avoid reading it. Relay or request, then stop.

Once you've written the short body message, capsulize that message on the subject line. Don't be generic, like “the info you asked about” but be specific, such as “Revised third quarter budget spreadsheet.” Not all of your coworkers are geniuses, so the easier you make it for them, the better the results you get.

Once you've done all these things, then add in the recipients. You have that bad habit of hitting Enter by mistake after entering the addressee and sending a blank e-mail? Your e-mail won't be blank, and your mistake will remain hidden. Just be careful about that BCC address technique reader Thomas mentioned.

View a slide deck which covers this topic.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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