I was looking through my archive hard drive archive recently and ran across this article about email that I wrote way back in 1995. I can’t remember if anyone ever published it. I suspect not; I didn’t get serious about writing until a couple of years later.
The article starts by building the case for using email to conduct regular business. That seem absurd today, but at the time, using email for “real business” was quite controversial. Even the movie “You’ve Got Mail” was still three years in the future.
Back in those days, some companies had internal email systems (like Microsoft, which I mention in the article) but most external B2B communications were conducted via FAX or snail mail (aka “mail” as it was then called).
It’s unusual for “how-to” advice about technology to remain relevant 22 years after it’s been written, which is why I’m post it. What’s ironic is that people are still making the same mistakes with email that they were making nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Electronic Mail — The Professional’s Power Tool (1995)
The use of computers in retail marketing has been growing rapidly over the past few years. It’s not just ATM machines and bar-code scanners that are changing the industry, it’s technology that’s installed in the offices, like electronic mail.
Electronic mail has an enormous potential to help companies become more productive. For example, trying to coordinate the activities of different people in different locations is extremely difficult, even with a telephone.
This is especially true today, when business travel, meetings and voice mail seem to be conspiring to make certain that you never actually talk with the person you need to talk with. And, unlike voice mail, you can use electronic mail to send people long documents. A few seconds and — beep! — the document’s right on your co-worker’s computer!
With electronic mail, vital information can zip around the network, landing exactly where it’s needed most. Of course, you could always send a fax, but electronic mail is cleaner and faster. Suppose you must provide information to 50 people. With electronic mail, it’s a matter of a few seconds to send everyone a copy.
With fax it might take hours of dialing and redialing. And by the time you were finished, your original copy, having been fed through the fax machine 50 times, would look like a family of rats had been chewing at it. Not to mention the multiple telephone charges.
Electronic mail is not only more productive than other methods of communication, it also changes the way that companies operate. Some of the most profitable companies in the world are heavy users of electronic mail. They electronic mail making their organizations more responsive, better able to adapt to new circumstances and new market conditions.
At Microsoft, for example, there’s no executive or employee who doesn’t uses electronic mail daily. Microsoft’s managers see electronic mail to make decisions faster. Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, frequently sends mail messages to his entire company, telling them what’s on his mind and helping remind them of their goals and directions.
In companies that embrace electronic mail wholeheartedly, it can promote the active debate of important issues, allowing for greater participation from employees at all levels. It can also help make certain that decisions are made with the most recent and the most accurate information. In the information age, an organization’s ability to communicate will determine how well it can succeed in the future.
However, to get the most out of an electronic mail system, it’s essential to have some guidelines for its proper use. Just like any power tool, it takes a little experience and training to use it wisely and well. Over the years, I’ve instructed hundreds of professionals, managers and executives on the usage of technology. During that time, I’ve isolated the five most important guidelines for effective use of electronic mail. Here they are:
1. Inform, don’t overload.
Constantly ask yourself: “Do these people really need to know this bit of information?” Under the guise of keeping people informed, you may be keeping them uninformed by flooding their electronic mailbox with trivia. Be the kind of person who only sends electronic mail only when it’s important. That way your messages will get read first.
2. Use a descriptive mail header.
A mail header is the title of the message that appears in the recipient’s list of newly-received mail. If you want your mail message to be read, you should create a message header that explains what the message is truly about. If you can communicate the entire gist of the message in the header, then do so. If not, make certain that the header summarizes the contents. That way people can make intelligent decision about which message to read first.
3. Write like a journalist.
Most people aren’t going to wade through a tome of information. If possible, the entire message should be the size of the average screen display. If you must communicate something longer, then summarize the document in the first screen and end that first screen with “details to follow.” Some people write electronic mail messages as if they were mystery novels. It’s only when you reach the end of a hundred screens that you find out what’s going on. Electronic mail messages should be written like newspaper stories: headlines first, followed by the main points, followed by the details in decreasing order of importance.
4. Avoid humor (especially sarcasm).
The word upon the electronic page is dry and impersonal. Unless you have a real knack for writing humor, your attempts are not likely to come off the way you intended it. Your wit will be ignored, your satire will be misunderstood and your sarcasm will only annoy people.
5. Control your temper.
Never use electronic mail when you’re hot under the collar. One touch of a send button, and your “nuclear flame-o-gram” has been written into the pages of corporate history. And you just might be history yourself, because there’s no way you’re ever going to get that message back. It’s simply a good idea not even to go near an electronic mail program when you’re not in the best of moods.
How’s that for a corny ending? Even so, the advice stands the test of time. And probably in the exciting years ahead, too.