Moran Communications, Inc.
The Write Stuff
All about Email – Ten simple rules to do it the right way.
The good news: email is fast. The bad news: email is fast.
Email has become so key to the way we communicate, it’s amazing that a lot of people don’t have a handle on the basics of this powerful technology. Consider that every time you send an email message you’re putting your reputation on the line. Do you want to be known as a careless jerk? If not, read on.
1. When to use e-mail and when not to use it. Professor Nicholas Negroponte, in his groundbreaking book Being Digital (First Vintage, 1996), drew a critical distinction when thinking about communication. Should the communication you’re about to have with someone be synchronous (necessitating a give and take), or should it be asynchronous (where the back and forth between people isn’t necessary)? “When should we schedule the Annual Dinner?” This will require a lot of input and ideas from all involved, so it probably should be a synchronous communication in the form of a meeting or a conference call. But, “Please be in my office for a staff meeting Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.” is asynchronous: you’re telling somebody simply to be there—no discussion is necessary. This is best handled by email or a text message.
2. Reply and Reply All. If you take this to heart and learn the critical difference between these two buttons, you may save your business or career, avoid a lawsuit, and generally evade a lot of ugly mayhem in your life. This applies especially to a large organization, which, thanks to e-mail, may be geographically diverse. A message sent to a bunch of people may contain some information about which you have a strong opinion. If you express your opinion to “all,” you can seriously alienate some people. A regional manager named Bob sends a message to everybody in a group. One of the group sends a reply to his friend, Jim, indicating his displeasure with Bob. Instead of just directing his message to his friend, he hits reply all that “Bob is a flaming idiot.” Whoops! Time to dust off the resume. When replying to an email, slow down and be careful. An inadvertent reply all can make your life miserable.
3. The title or subject line. Avoid Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: When sending an email message, always change the subject line to convey the subject of the message you’re sending. Some people, many people, through simple laziness, just hit forward, reply, or reply all to send a message that has absolutely nothing to do with the current message. A couple of years ago I and a long list of recipients received an email entitled, “Christmas Party.” Two years later, some of the people on that original list still send messages to the group with the subject line, “Re: Christmas Party,” although the message has absolutely nothing to do with a Christmas party. One of those message was sent by the manager of our vacation condo association warning all owners to move their cars from the parking lot Monday because the driveway was going to be repaved. Chaos resulted. This happens all the time. It shouldn’t.
4. Don’t be a comedian. Use humor, if you must, but be appropriate. A poke-in-the-ribs joke may work in the hallway, but it can look weird a few years later in an old email. What seems funny when spoken can come across radically different in an email. Be careful when using humor at someone else’s expense.
5. Do not EMWD! What, you may ask, is EMWD? It is emailing while drunk. If you have had a few pops too many and are feeling loquacious, unplug your computer. What seemed to you like beautiful prose that evening might be horrifying when you read the response in the morning. This rule also applies to EMWA (emailing while angry). Back when we communicated only by paper mail, the tasks of writing the letter, printing it, signing it, putting it into an envelope, and putting a stamp on it provided a lot of waypoints for rethinking the message we were about to send. The good news is that email is fast. The bad news is that email is fast. I shall never forget an email blast that an obviously soused woman sent to everyone in our condo association. “If anybody sees my f…ing husband or the whore bitch he sleeps with please spit on them for me.” Ouch. That poor lady, who is actually a nice person, violated both the EMWD and the EMWA rules. She also misspelled every other word.
6. DO NOT SHOUT! What you just read is called shouting, the inappropriate use of capital letters. It’s okay if you want to emphasize something, perhaps a word or two, but it is completely tacky if this is your default font when writing anything. It makes you look like an amateur, especially when you’re shouting about something that is NOT WORTH SHOUTING ABOUT. It also eliminates your ability to emphasize something that you really want to stand out. Twitter and Facebook, for example, allow for no bold, underline, or italics, so all caps is the only way to emphasize a word.
7. Break up your message into bite-sized paragraphs. If you want your email to be read, put yourself in the place of the reader. Appropriate use of paragraph breaks is always a good rule of writing, but it’s critical when using the Internet or email. People expect punchier messages on the computer screen. We live in the Information Age, and we all share the responsibility to deliver information as efficiently as possible. A never-ending paragraph screams out, “Don’t read me!”
8. If you have a website it should be part of your e-mail address. People spend thousands of dollars on a website and thousands more trying to drive traffic to it, but ignore a simple method of getting people to visit their site: their email address. How many times have you seen a business card promoting mybusiness.com but the email address, instead of email@example.com, says firstname.lastname@example.org? Every internet service provider that hosts websites includes free email boxes. Why people don’t take advantage of this is one of the mysteries of the Internet. It’s different, of course, if you’re an employee of a corporation or organization. In that case you should use a personal email address for personal correspondence.
9. Use a signature. All email software programs enable you to put in a signature or contact information automatically when you begin a message. It’s a mystery why everybody doesn’t do this, just as it’s amazing that people don’t use their website for their email address. You can even use different identities, for example, one as the head of your business, and the other showing you as a member of a non-profit board. Sometimes your message will result in a return phone call for clarification. Unless your contact information is there, you’re forcing the recipient to look up your phone number. If nothing else, a signature line with contact information is a simple courtesy. Not only do you make life easier on your recipient, but a signature also provides you with a valuable branding opportunity: to let people know who you are. Some writers include their amazon author’s page. In any email program, instructions on how to add a signature are usually found in preferences or options. Every time you send an email it becomes a marketing or a branding opportunity. It’s simple. Just do it.
10. Make nice. Email has become such a dominant part of everyday communication that obeying the rules of email etiquette simply makes sense. An excellent and well-titled book on the subject is called Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Knopf, 2007).
It’s just good business to send regular messages to your email list. It may be an alert about your latest blog post, or that a new issue of your company newsletter is available on your website. Often, you will want to send a “blast” email to alert your list that you’ve just rolled out a new product or service.
Email marketing services such as Constant Contact, Mailchimp, or Aweber do most of the work for you. If you send regular email alerts, you should definitely consider one of these third-party providers. They know the ropes and make life easier.
Caution – People on your list should have “opted in.” In the “old days,” you could buy or rent a commercial mailing list of targeted prospects. Indeed, you can still do this today with regular mail. But you can’t just go out and buy or rent an email list (although it’s done). Email is now controlled by the Federal Anti-Spam Law, also known as the Can Spam Act.
Spam is unsolicited email, also known as junk email. The law doesn’t allow false header information, such as a fictitious sender or location. Deceptive subject lines are also prohibited. You also must state if your email is an advertisement. Another requirement of the law is that you provide your physical address or post office box that is registered on the email communication. You must also provide a simple “opt out” or “unsubscribe” link to enable the recipient to let you know he doesn’t want to be on your list anymore. You have 10 days to delete them from your list, but software is available to automate this. The big email marketing services provide this on the standard templates.
The penalty for violating the Can Spam Act can be stiff, as much as $16,000 per offense. It’s best to use a third-party mailer such as Constant Contact, which partially insulates you. But Constant Contact will drop you for repeat violations.
Email is a gift from the gods of technology. Don’t blow it.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you found this blog post useful.