One of the essential requirements to work effectively and achieve success through use of the Internet, teleworking
(telecommuting), and operating in virtual corporations is that of making effective use of electronic mail (email). Email is so pervasive that you would
hardly think it warrants any guidance. However poor communications is often the root of many business problems, and poor use of email can compound these problems as well as being the cause of
inefficient working. Based on our own extensive use and observations of other users over many years we have identified five critical success factors, that are discussed on this page:
- Selecting Your Audience Correctly - common pitfalls to avoid.
- Using Distribution Lists - efficient sending to multiple recipients.
- Composing Your Message - guidelines for effective communication.
- Handling Incoming Messages - developing coping strategies.
- Having a Well Organized Information Base - finding past messages easily.
- Making Full Use of Your Email Software - key things to look out for are reviewed here.
This may sound a trivial question but think how many unwanted messages you receive due to some oversight by the sender? It is so easy to Reply to messages, or send to a list, without
realizing who your audience are. Another common problem is mistyping the email address of somebody on CompuServe, where many addresses are still in numerical in form (e.g.
email@example.com). For this reason, most people make use of address books or mail lists. In these, once an email address is verified you can refer to it in future by the person's name or a
nickname in the TO: of your message. Also, with email it is so easy to send messages to more than one person. Therefore, good targetting of email messages will involve pausing for a moment before
composing each message and thinking about the following:
- Who should be the main addressee (TO: ) and who should be copied?
- If you are replying to a message does reply go the to right address (mail headers have Reply To: which may be different to From: especially if the message came through a gateway or distribution
- Should my reply go just to the sender, or all or just some of the original recipients?
- If this is coming from a list, will my reply go the list or the list manager (very many people send 'subscribe' or 'leave' messages to the list as a whole and do not achieve what they
- Who else would benefit from being copied on my reply?
- Should I make use of the blind copy (BCC) facility?
- If there are several people I communicate with regularly should I use a list (see below)?
Do you find yourself typing in or cutting and pasting the same names again and again? Most email software has address books that allow the creation of lists as well as an individual name entry. If
you regularly send emails to the same group of people, why not create a list. How you do this depends on your software, but normally you define the list name (e.g. Comms Team), and list the email
addresses of its members. Thereafter sending a message to the list will send it to all addressees. There are two things to watch out for:
- If there is a wrong address in the middle of your list and your message aborts when being sent to your server (usually an STMP server at your Internet service provider), and you correct it and
send again, those at the top of the list may receive your message twice
- List updating - if an individual changes their email address, depending on your software, you may have to change their entry manually in all lists on which they appear (many software clients are
not very good at this).
For significant sized lists, there is an advantage to have a remote list on a list server where list members can modify their own entries. Many Internet service providers offer list server
facilities for an extra fee. Most server software gives flexibility in terms of having open lists (where people can add their own names) or closed lists (which must be added by a list manager),
allowing posting by named people only or by anyone, and allowing people to modify their own entries. The advantages to someone sending to such a list (for example a regular bulletin) are that the
recipient list is not sent to everyone (having the advantage of reducing the message header length and protecting anonymity of recipients) and the list maintenance effort is significantly reduced.
Servers also offer additional facilities such as having archive files so that new list members can retrieve earlier messages for themselves.
Again, it might seem trivial to provide "guidelines" for writing something as simple and straightforward as an email message, but just like any other form of communications it is possible to
confuse your reader. These are basic guidelines that are designed minimize effort and reduce misunderstandings between sender and recipients:
- Make the heading meaningful (in many email products the heading is called "subject" or "subject line").
- It is often useful to have short prefix codes or words such as U: (urgent) P: (priority) I: (information) etc. This makes it easier for the recipient to pick out.
- Keep each message short and clear. Its often better to send two short messages about two separate subjects than to combine two or more subjects in one message - one topic, one message is a good
- When you reply to a message, use the same heading if you are sticking to the same subject, but change the heading if you pick one item from the incoming message and start a new chain of thought.
Headings that link closely to the content will help both parties to handle the mail and especially to track back when necessary and link the current message to previous ones. Too many messages become
buried or lost in a message base because they carry RE: subject headings when the original topic has long been superceded
- Start each message by stating its purpose/context, unless this is entirely clear from the heading.
- If you want the other person to do something, say so clearly. If you are simply passing information, say so, then the other person will know he need not reply. You can do this simply, by putting
the letters "FYI" right at the start ("For Your Information", meaning "you don't need to do anything about this, just read it").
- When you receive a message, think before you answer:
- Is any answer really necessary?
- If so, will a straight "OK, I agree" be enough? - If you just say "OK, I agree", the discussion is ended and everyone is happy!
- If you need to comment, make it clear whether you expect a further response or you are happy to let matters stand.
These "best practice" guidelines are based on experience and observation. Please let us know your own hints and tips that help effective email communications! (By a message to David Skyrme, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unfortunately the days when we could look forward ecstatically to receiving emails have long gone. Many of us are bombarding with 100 or more emails a day, and it takes time to sort out the urgent,
important, the trivia, and the junk. Fortunately there are a few ways around this:
- Don't publicize your email on web pages, newsgroups, or register with web sites that do not have a policy of not selling on your email address. However, you have to strike a balance between being
too visible or uncontactable!
- Use anti-spamming software to filter out incoming junk. Unfortunately many of these are not too effective.
- Use filters on incoming email to divert email to relevant folders, based on sender's name, title and so on. Then only look at those folders when you are working on that specific topic. This can
be very effective when you know your regular senders and topics.
- Use conventions among your group to indicate the action you as a recipient are supposed to take e.g. preface each title with U: for urgent, A: for action, I: for information.
- Before processing your email, sort the In-box e.g. sort by sender. There may be contiguous clusters of emails that you can fold away in one folder, such as the trash can! Also sometimes you only
need to look at the latest one with the same title to get a good understanding of what has happened previously.
- Be ruthless in your processing. Within 2 seconds, hit Trash, Reply, File or sing up to too many.
- Develop standard replies, so that you can still give a personalized reply, but minimize your typing.
- If you are receiving replies from your Web site, pre-set the Subject line. That way you (or your filter) will quickly recognize the nature of the request.
Perhaps the hardest psychological thing to overcome is that you do not have to reply or even read every email. If it is really important, the sender is likely to contact you again (such as
telephoning "did you get my email..."!
OK, we're not all natural organizers who can maintain a filing system such that you can instantly retrieve any message you have received in the last five years. However, there are some things you
can do to help improve your hit rate:
- Clarify your information priorities. What are the main categories of information that you will use again and again?
- Try and be consistent between your PC folders, email folders and personal organizer.
- Don't be afraid to file a single email in several folders. Many people like to retain one copy of the non-trash mail in the IN folder since they can often remember roughly when an email was
- If your email is linked to a wider office system, perhaps you can add some relevant keyword before you file.
- Set criteria for what you want to file and save. Why keep email when you can use your intranet or the Internet to retrieve key information or documents.
- Do some occasional cleansing. You may have a system that prompts you when messages are three months old, which ones you want to keep.
If all the above fails (and it often does!), why not invest in an appropriate document management system or personal search facility (such as AltaVista Discovery) that will index all the
documents, email, presentations, spreadsheets etc. on your PC and allow you to do a combined search.
Electronic mail software has improved significantly over the last few years. Features that are quite common in today's products and that can make you more productive and professional are:
- Address books, giving you the ability to create address lists and also give short hand aliases or nicknames to people with whom you communicate
- Ability to embed pictures. web page code etc. (but make sure that your recipient has compatible email software).
- Attachments e.g. Word documents, HTML pages. Why retype things when you may already have a relevant document that can form an attachment to a short note.
- Rules-based filters, that allow you to predefine processing options (e.g. file, delete, copy etc.) to both incoming and outgoing mail.
- Standard messages or stationery.
- More sophisticated search options e.g. search only the title.
- Multiple signatures, so you can customize the information that goes at the end of each message according to its purpose or addressee.
- Ability to set preferences e.g. default fonts, send and receive options, encoding/decoding of attachments (Quite often, failures to read attachments Microsoft Outlook attachments are because of
improper default settings, perhaps created by central MIS departments thinking only of internal emails)
Unfortunately, many people use only 20 per cent of the capability of their email client, and are therefore not as productive as they should be. Why not invest a few minutes each day, exploring a
few infrequently used menu items and their associated Help text.
Every few years we re-evaluate the email package we use. In the past we have used Pegasus for a couple of years, have tried out BeyondMail and a host of similar products on 30 day trials, and have
Microsoft Outlook installed (for certain client communications). However, our daily workhorse is Eudora Professional from Qualcomm, now at V4.3 (and if you cannot
afford the $50 to buy it, Qualcomm offers for free a lighter version or the full version with sponsored adverts).
A general source of good practice on email (and other net topics) is Arlene Rinaldi's User Guidelines and Netiquette.
© Copyright. David J. Skyrme. 1999. This material may be copied or distributed subject to the terms of our copyright conditions (no commercial gain;
complete page copying etc.) .