Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to stay out of e-mail trouble

It's early January, and thanks to some folks in the great state of New Jersey we've been hearing and reading a lot about e-mail and the trouble it can cause. Heads have rolled in the governor's office over e-mail messages sent months before.

It amazes me that anyone could think an e-mail with explosive contents could remain "personal and confidential." But the immediacy of e-mail, texts and social media messages make it hard to lay off the "send" button once you've put it in writing.

It's a good thing President Harry S Truman didn't have these things at his fingertips. Anytime he got hot under the collar about something (which was often), he would bang a letter out on his typewriter. He would then read it, fold it up and leave it in his desk overnight. If he felt the same way the next day he'd send it, but that usually didn't happen.

The interesting thing is that for all we've heard about social media and texting, e-mail is still the preferred means of communication in the business world. With that in mind, here are ten tips I've sifted from various sources as well as my own experience about e-mail etiquette and effective communication.

1. State what you have to say in the opening sentence. They taught you about topic sentences in grade school. I certainly learned about the "lede" in 25 years of daily journalism, and the best summation I've ever heard on that subject came from Richard Aregood, editorial writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. "If a train has crashed, you don't start the story with 'Engineer Jones was having a really bad day.'"

2. Always make the subject line something that will mean something to the recipient. Stay away from "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE," "URGENT" and "IMPORTANT."

3. DON'T OVERDO IT WITH THE CAPS LOCK BUTTON. It doesn't make what you're saying any more urgent, it's just annoying.

4. Stay away from exclamation points! Everything I post on Facebook tempts me to use exclamation points, and I hate myself for it. With e-mail, it ought to be easier to keep a more dispassionate tone.

5. Don't write an e-mail like ur writing a txt. Avoid such acronyms as PLZ, OMG and ROFL. Your recipient will wonder WUWT (what's up with that).

6. Be brief. Mark Twain once said, "I'd have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time." Most e-mails don't need to be more than three or four paragraphs long. If you have more to say, write a letter and make it an attachment.

7. Be courteous. If you're old enough, remember Captain Kangaroo's magic words. "Please" and "Thank you" still matter.

8. Give good contact information, e.g., name, business address and phone number. Your recipient might want to call you. He or she might even want to take you to lunch.

9. Edit and proofread your work. I know we live in an age where fewer and fewer people can spell, and don't even get me started on apostrophes, but do your best. If you have a grammar and spelling fanatic for a friend, ask for a consultation.

10. Respond to serious messages within 24 hours. I have been served notice by several people on this, including my priest, so it is my new year's resolution.