Ten Commandments of E-mail
to cope with e-mail overload and more
Communications Update, March 1999, Volume 2, #3)
Monday morning, and when you power up the PC you find 183 e-mail
messages waiting for you ? most of them marked urgent. Apparently
other folks have no life and spend their weekends dumping work on
your virtual desk. You're beginning to feel like you're the
bottleneck in an information-flow conspiracy that's fast
overwhelming you. How do you
cope? How do you sort out which among those e-mails can wait and
which must be attended to? How do you learn what you need to learn ?
and forget what you can forget? You've
got a knowledge management problem. It's not that you don't have
enough data; you have too much. And it's the same story everywhere:
we're all awash in information and we feel like we don't have the
time even to separate the good from the bad, let alone read and
absorb it all. Let's deal with
that e-mail problem by establishing some basic principles. We're
going to cope with the overload by turning to the Ten Commandments ?
the e-mail commandments, that is.
dost have several choices.
by performing triage. Scan the headers, and delete everything you
don't need to know or act upon materially. The exceptions to this
rule are messages from your kids at college or your closest
relations anywhere, like your mother-in-law. Set those aside,
virtually speaking, to read later. Now
remember how e-mail works best. What most people, Bill Gates
included, seem to forget, is that it's e-mail. It's really a modern
form of something your great-grandparents enjoyed every day: the
letter. It's best for short, informal messages that need to be both
written and read. That's important, and people forget it constantly:
don't say anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't want to commit to
writing. Permanently. You may delete it, but if it makes someone
else laugh or cry, or become furious, it will be saved. And read.
Again and again. By people who say, ?How could anyone have been so
stupid as to write that?? A
large number of e-mail messages should never be sent. Instead, they
should be handled with a phone call. There's an old Arab saying, a
form of salutation at the front of letters, that reads, ?I have read
and understood your letter, praise Allah!? The Arabs realized that
the two were not automatically connected. The implication is clear:
the possibilities of misinterpretation are many with the written
form. Tone of voice, hesitations, silences, emotional outbursts ?
all of these can have important implications in communications, and
they can only be communicated through the voice. If you find
yourself worrying excessively over what to say in an e-mail, maybe
you should call. Maybe you should write a letter ? later, when
you're calm. Maybe you should walk down the hall and talk to the
person. Maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't even respond at all.
shalt never print thy e-mail.
you have to print out your e-mail, it means that either you or the
sender misunderstand the chief purpose of the medium. If you're
sending documents around, in draft form, or for information, try to
keep them in electronic form. Better yet, avoid sending documents at
all. An enormous amount of time and energy is wasted in the
corporate world by people struggling with incompatible formats,
files that never arrived, attachments that got garbled or stripped
off the message, or the like. Instead, post necessary files on an
intranet, or an Internet site that people who need the information
can be directed to. If your company doesn't have such a site,
establish one. The time saved could launch another profitable
division. Keep the e-mail medium for its best use: a substitute
conversation, where the information being exchanged is not
shalt never send e-mail when furious or exhausted.
amazing how many people send e-mail that they live to regret. The
old rule about writing letters that your great-grandmother knew
still holds true for e-mail: write it down, save it, look at it
tomorrow. Does it still look as clever or important as it did the
night before? You may decide not to send it at all. The
corporate world has thoroughly absorbed the strange lesson that it's
good in most cases to overcommunicate. E-mail encourages this
dangerous fallacy because of its ease of use. Fight this tendency by
deciding to ignore all but the most essential information about
time-sensitive events, activities, and plans. The truth is that all
business communications should be action-centered. If a
communication doesn't promise to lead to an action, consider not
reading it or sending it. E-mail should be subjected to the same
shalt never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meeting.
you're trying to persuade someone to do something, or someone wants
to persuade you, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
Never reprimand, reward, or fire someone who reports to you via
e-mail. There's a special circle of hell awaiting those who do. We
owe it to our humanity to perform these obligations, whether
difficult or easy, in person.
shalt never delete names from thy address book.
astonishing how many people fail to take advantage of the
time-saving devices most e-mail programs offer. Create standard
headers and footers for your messages. Think how much time you'll
spend otherwise simply typing your name over and over again. And
other people's names: Keep an up-to-date address book. Never delete
old names (until death do you part); you'll never know who will come
back into your virtual life. In many companies, a little attention
to design can improve not only the style of your e-mail, but also
shalt never forward chain e-mail.
of the most tiresome activities legions of businesspeople engage in
is sending e-mail humor that was created by a friend of a friend of
a friend of the guy down the hall. The headers and footers on these
monstrosities become endlessly long, and they clog up your system
and slow down the reading of important e-mail. One particularly
virulent form of this disease is the e-mail picture, where someone
with more time than he should have has played with x's and o's on
his screen until the result is faintly representative of some
humorous image. Have you tried to open one of those files recently?
Don't encourage this lazy form of communication. Eschew others who
shalt thou pass on rumor or innuendo about real people.
you must gossip, confine it to people who are not real to you ?
movie stars, cartoon characters, historical figures. Avoid spreading
false information about real, live people. It will come back to
haunt you. Remember the Microsoft antitrust case: even your deleted
e-mails can be resurrected and read in courtrooms by lawyers who are
not friends of yours.
shalt thou do so about companies thou workest for or may workest for
relatively anonymous format of e-mail, and other electronic
communication channels, tends to encourage the practice of flaming,
whether of institutions or people. Use this simple test before you
flame someone or something: Would you say it in person? If the
answer is no, you should not send the communication ? in any medium.
shalt remember the hierarchy and keep it sacrosanct:
the meeting, then the phone call, then the voice mail, then the
e-mail. In terms of impact and lasting significance, the wider the
?bandwidth? involved in a communication, the better it is.
Face-to-face meetings have the most interpersonal bandwidth. Phone
calls lose the visual element, but keep the tonal qualities of the
voice and allow for clarification and give-and-take. Voice mail
keeps tone, but loses the chance to clarify misunderstandings. And
e-mail has the narrowest bandwidth of all. Thus, it is the most
dangerous medium. Use it with care. It's difficult to communicate
successfully under the best of circumstances, and the narrower the
bandwidth, the greater the possibility that something will go wrong
or get fatally misunderstood.
shalt send nothing over e-mail that must be error-free.
is simply impossible to proofread successfully on the computer
screen. If a communication is important enough that it must be
error-free, it should be sent via some other medium. If you feel you
must send something via e-mail that has to be error-free, break the
Second Commandment and print it out. Using a ruler, go over the
document line by line. Read it once forward, for meaning and
grammar, and once ?backward,? for spelling. The effort is
time-consuming, but necessary if one hundred percent accuracy is
these Ten Commandments, and those 183 e-mail messages will melt away
like ice cubes in the summer sun. And you will have e-mail
righteousness, the glory of a clean virtual desk shall be yours, and
all the cubicles will ring with your praise.
recipients of list (E-mail)
Wednesday, April 21, 1999 7:20 AM
[METU-IE-ALUMNI:778] THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF E-MAIL