TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – May 2007

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Oh No IconEmail Etiquette – Ten Mistakes to Avoid

Email has become an essential part of our lives. These days, many business and personal relationships are begun online. Quite often those relationships exist exclusively online for a long time before we meet the other person in real life. That means people are judging you almost entirely upon the appearance and content of your email messages. Like it or not, your ability to use this communication medium effectively will make a huge difference in your professional and social life – for the good or the bad. Used intelligently, the power of electronic mail can do wonders for your career. Used inappropriately, it can derail it. Applied well, it can greatly enhance the quality and quantity of your personal relationships. Used improperly, it will damage them.

Out of Control BulldozerThis month I'm going to share with you the new rules for effective online communication; but first, you must master your equipment. You wouldn't climb behind the controls of a bulldozer and, without any training, fire it up and start moving. Yet, this is how most folks use email, with only a vague notion of what they're doing and where they're going. Even after becoming familiar enough with the basics to avoid doing major damage, most people never learn what all those other knobs and levers are for. So our first order of business is to review the technical details and then issue your "heavy equipment operator's license" to you. Note: if you're an old pro, please stay with me through this and I'll get to the new stuff soon. Please refer to this illustration (your email program may look a little different, but the concepts are exactly the same):

Sendmail Dialog Box

#1 – Addressing mistakes. You know what goes in the (1) "To:" field. it's the email address of the person you're sending the message to. What about (2) "CC:" and (3) "BCC:?" CC stands for carbon copy. Email addresses you put here will receive a duplicate copy of the message too. They'll see it was sent to somebody else and they were copied on it. This is the best choice if your message is obviously for the "To:" person and "FYI" for everybody else. However, a few words of warning: more problems arise from multiple recipient email than any other kind. Make sure your message is relevant to the group of people you're copying. We're all drowning in irrelevant (or marginally relevant) information. Is your FYI just a CYA? If so, don't do it. Thanks.

There's another issue, particularly when you're distributing to a group outside of your company with a CC or multiple addresses ganged-up on the "To:" line. Your entire distribution list is visible to everybody getting the message. I get irritated when I see my own private email address included among dozens of others on an "open" CC list. It increases the chance my address will be harvested by a spammer – and besides, I'm not so keen on having my interests and affiliations broadcast to who knows who. I used to recommend that you use the BCC field in these situations instead. BCC stands for blind carbon copy and it suppresses the distribution list. However, I can no longer make that recommendation. Because of aggressive spam filters, it's highly likely that BCC'ed messages will be filtered. As I mentioned last month, if you do send a fair amount of group email, use a list host. Another alternative to consider is a great little program from Sperry Software called SendIndividually.

As an additional point of etiquette, before sending to a large group, send the message to yourself first (put your own email address in the To field). It enables you to see exactly how the outside world views you. For example, if you don't enter your own full name correctly when setting up your email program configuration, your recipients will have a more difficult time recognizing your (hopefully) important message among the dozens or hundreds of other emails received daily. I see this frequently with AOL'ers, whose email address is something like: garg1278@aol.com. At least with a "corporate" address like john.smith@xyzcorp.com you've got a fighting chance of being recognized. Still better to have your full name show. (Click here for instructions for Configuring Outlook Express. Others programs are similar.)

Mistake #2 – No subject line. (Slightly less awful: the meaningless subject line). The subject line (4) is the place where you should spend ten seconds thinking about a meaningful and helpful identifier for your message. Not doing that – and sending out a blank subject – is like saying, "I couldn't be bothered to do this little thing for you." Only slightly less annoying to the recipient are short, meaningless subjects like "hi" or "info" or "your message." Recipients are busy – and it's rather assumptive on your part to expect them to immediately open, read, and act on your message. With no subject, you markedly increase the chance your email will get lost or trashed, unread. Many people archive all business-related emails, and properly descriptive subject lines make that job so much easier. Don't be afraid to use a relatively long subject line like "Confirming our meeting Tuesday 2PM at your office." Even if it's truncated, the important stuff will still be communicated, especially if you put the crucial elements first: Confirming – Meeting – Day – Time – Location. The "company culture" at some firms carries this subject line communication thing to its extreme. On internal emails, they put the entire message in the subject line, and end it with a little code like "/nmb" (no message body).

Remember, the email "world" can look a lot different to other people – starting with the way your message shows (or doesn't show) on their screen. For example, you may have your email program configured to "auto-preview" only the first few lines of each inbox text message. Others may have set their program to display the entire message (including graphics and HTML fonts), while some display nothing but the sender and subject line. Furthermore, depending on the recipient's screen size, only the first few words of the subject line may be displayed. This all goes triple for mobile Blackberry and Treo recipients.

#3 – Playing email ping-pong. Some people always like having the last word. They're compelled to compose a response to every message, even responding to a response to their original message. It's pretty funny when two of these type of individuals engage in online correspondence. It just goes on and on and on. Look, you don't want to be an ungrateful boor by not acknowledging someone when they've gone out of their way for you, but at the same time you don't need to pong every ping. Just use your good judgment and you'll usually be OK. A footnote to this topic is the issue of "return receipts." Like that little green postal card you get back, most email programs will allow you to attach an electronic return receipt request to your message. Try sending an email to yourself with this request option. You'll see what happens. Depending upon how the recipient has their email program configured, they may automatically bounce back a short "read confirmation" message showing the time and date your email message was opened. Most people have their programs set to ask each time a return receipt is requested. The recipient can then decide whether to acknowledge receipt or not. Others never send a receipt. So, now you can see what happens with the return receipt feature: you get a lot of "false negatives." That is, if you get the acknowledgement message back, you can be pretty sure your message was at least received and probably read. However, if you don't get it back, it's just as likely the message was received and read, although the recipient willfully or by default declined to send the receipt back. You just don't know. Of course, this greatly limits the usefulness of email receipts.

#4 – Inappropriate attachments. Of course, it's super-easy to attach a file to an email you're composing. You can "drag and drop" just about any kind of file you want. However, by doing that, you could be making a big mistake. The first consideration is message size. If you drop in a large graphic image, MP3, video file, or database, your message can overwhelm the recipient's inbox. Many folks have a storage limit of not many megabytes. Your message will either bounce back to you (the best failure scenario) or fill up the recipient's mailbox so that he or she can't receive anyone else's messages. In the worst case, your attachment can "crash" the other person's mail program. This will not win you any popularity contests. Your best defense is to examine the file size before you send, and if it's more than about 500K, contact the recipient before sending the attachment to make sure they can accommodate it.

The other concern is inadvertently sending dangerous files. Although not as big a problem as it once was, Microsoft Office programs can harbor silent "macro viruses" which have the potential to wreck all kinds of havoc on the recipient's computer – including wiping out the entire hard drive. Ouch. Older antivirus programs were set to delete these attachments on arrival. If you're in business, and have reason to send documents to others, I highly recommend buying a copy of Adobe Acrobat or a similar program. With Acrobat or its copycats, you easily create "PDF" files which can't contain viruses, and are about as universal a distribution format as exists today. The Acrobat software installs as another "printer" on your computer and thus, creating PDF's is almost as simple as pushing the print button. Oh, by the way, if you need any more motivation to stop sending out your Microsoft Word documents to other people, please know that the DOC file contains more than the words you see on your screen. Depending on the version of Word and how it's configured, your files may contain things you wrote once and then deleted, or info about other files and details about your computer. It's easy for any reasonably geeky person like me to look at the "behind the scenes" stuff in your Word document.

#5 – HTML email. I don't use "fancy" HTML mail for business correspondence. No professional I know does. HTML mail (with colors, different fonts, "stationary," and graphics) is OK for social email – but in the business world, plain text rules. You will not be taken seriously unless you send in plain text (or HTML that looks plain -- i.e., single font, normal size, no strange colors, etc.). Busy businesspeople prefer receiving short, unformatted messages. On the other hand, they overwhelmingly prefer newsletters (like this one) to arrive as an attractively formatted HTML email message. Please note: it's becoming more and more acceptable to use *some* minor embellishment in your business correspondence; just don't get carried away.

#6 – Badly chosen signature lines. A sig is the short text message that's appended to every email you send. It's most commonly used for displaying your name, company name, postal address, etc. That's OK, but some people use it for other purposes, like the display of favorite quotations, aphorisms, etc. That could be OK too, but in a business environment, it's rarely a plus. It also suffers from what I call "T-Shirt Syndrome," where the saying can be somewhat amusing the first time you read it, but becomes incredibly trite and annoying the tenth time you see it again.

#7 – Dissertation length emails. Don't you just love receiving "War and Peace" emails? Please know that businesspeople on the receiving end are busy, with little patience to digest and interpret your magnum opus. If you have a lot of information to convey, consider formatting your message as an "executive summary" containing the essentials in a paragraph or two, and the rest as an "appendix" with full details. Remember, reading big blocks of text off the computer screen is much harder than on paper. If your message is a bit on the long side, please consider giving it some air. Separate paragraphs with a blank line and use other formatting tricks to make the message easier to read. Don't confront your reader with a wall of grey text to read.

#8 – Broken links. Well-meaning folks often send out links to web resources in their emails. While that's unobjectionable, if you navigate deep into a commercial web site, cut the page's web address, and paste it into your plain text email message, the link may look fine to you. It may be several lines long, but it'll probably be blue, underlined, and "clickable." If you test it (by closing the original web page, and clicking on your link), the page will launch in your browser. However, when it arrives on the recipient's computer, the link won't work. Only the first line will be blue and underlined, while the rest will be broken into regular characters. This happens because your email program will automatically insert line breaks when a certain number of characters of page width is reached. Typically this is around 70 characters, although you can adjust it. There are two work-arounds. The first is to drag the link from your web browser and drop it in the email message (instead of cutting and pasting). This will create an attachment file that will launch the page. However, some antivirus programs will get upset by this attachment and delete it. The other option is to send in HTML format.

#9 – "Unfriendly" formatting. Unfortunately, I seem to get a lot of "pass along" emails. They've forwarded from one person to another until they finally reach my inbox. At each step, they become further and further nested and arrive looking something like this:

Nested Email

Virtually unreadable. Even worse, the forwarded email comes as a Russian Doll. Do you know what I'm talking about when I say Russian Doll? I'm referring to those carved hollow wooden dolls in which the biggest one separates to reveal a slightly smaller doll inside, and so forth. In the offending email, each forwarded message is nested inside the following one. Before I smartened up, I would click through and open a dozen messages until I reached the core message, which was invariably a joke or urban legend or "virus warning" or something I'd seen a year before. Now I just delete the mama doll and get back to work. Also included in the "unfriendly formatting" category is poor or nonexistent punctuation, no capitalization, and "txting" (like kids use on cell phone text messaging: RU@WK?).

#10 – Unreasonable reply expectations. If you have a "desk job" and work in a word processor or spreadsheet program all day, you probably read and respond to emails as they arrive throughout the workday. However, someone who's on the road a lot or works on his or her feet all day might return to a "stack" of emails fifty or a hundred high. What constitutes a prompt reply will naturally vary a lot between the two work styles. Some people don't understand this. Someone who works at the computer all day might fire off a message to a foot soldier and then get antsy if a response doesn't come back within a few hours. This is unreasonable. On the other hand, if an "intermittent emailer" sends a message to a desk worker, and gets a reply back almost instantly, he or she shouldn't assume the other person "has no life" just because of that.

Marriage Counselor CartoonA final note: Some people (hopefully not you), have become overly reliant on email… they'll send an email when a phone call, letter, or personal visit would be MUCH more appropriate. In general, if you have something critically important or very personal to convey, email is an inappropriate choice. Examples include: firing an employee, breaking off a love affair, or delivering very bad news. There is a communication importance hierarchy; in descending order they are: (1) personal one-on-one visit, (2) group visit or speech, (3) hand-written note, (4) typed and mailed letter, (5) telephone call, (6) fax, and lastly (7) email. Actually, an instant messenger message is last but I'll leave that for a different article…

A final, final note: If you're a long-time Urbach Letter reader and just experienced a bit of deja-vu, it's because this has been an update to an article I originally wrote in March, 2003. Over four years have gone by but I was amazed by how little editing was required. Seems like folks are still getting hung up on many of the same issues. However, it's important for you to understand the "rules" I've put forth in this article are not cast in stone. It's occasionally OK to break some of them – if you know that you're doing it, and why you're doing it.

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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
This article may be reprinted with permission and attribution