Effective E-Mail Techniques

Source: Personal Computing 1996

I got an electronic message the other day from a guy I thought was my friend. "It has come to our attention that you hvn't yet RSVP'd to yr invitation vis a vis the november 9 security analyst's meeting in petaluma at which you are scheduled to participate in a panel on out-year restructuring," read missive. "Please inform Donna on extension #4568 about intentions/needs for transportation and hotel accommodations immediately. Bert." Man, was that terse.

I called him up. "Hey, Bert," I said. "You mad at me or something?"

"No, man!" he yelped. Bert always speaks like a man at one end of a wind tunnel. "I ain't mad! I just wanted to snap you a quick e-mail on it! Don't you just love your e-mail? Ain't it a real time-saver?"

"Sure, Bert," I said. "Here you've only spent time writing the message, I've spent time reading it, and we've had a nice phone call about it too. That's what I call a real time-saver."

So it goes. To the time we spend on everything else in this life, we now must add the time we are forced to spend clarifying e-mails. The people who communicate the worst love e-mails the most. "Did you get my e-mail?!" they chortle. And you must answer, "Yeah, Chuck, I got your e-mail. Now, what was it supposed to be about? And can we talk about whatever it is . . . right now? On the phone? Like we used to?

The tragic thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. E-mails don't have to stink as a communications vehicle. There are really only three elements to excellent e-mail: clarity, brevity and extreme courtesy. Itís a stone-cold medium, so put a smile in your voice when you write that puppy, will you, Bud? Thanks, let's move on. Here are six essential templates to help the novice e-mailer craft e-messages while remaining somewhat human, if you believe that is indeed a virtue:

  1. The "Please get back to me about something" message. Sure, you need a response. But don't be nugatory -- be nice. Viz:
    Dear _______, I can't believe its been so long since we traded e-mails. Let's ameliorate that situation real soon. Like now. And while you're at it, what's your response on the Forbisher proposal? I await your reply . . . like today. Time's a wasting. Your associate, Larry.
    See? Friendly! Demonstrative! Affable! That's the ticket.

  2. The "I will be attending the meeting on the 18th" message. Getting to someone with timely data on upcoming plans is important. But why make it perfunctory just because it's short? Do better as in:
    Dear ______, Until this morning I had no reason to live. Yes, I will attend your seminar on the tax implications of limited partnerships in leveraged development scenarios. Wouldn't miss it. Yours till the prime rate falls. Barry.
    For one second, the person receiving this may doubt the seriousness as a person. That's good, especially if you are an essentially serious person.

  3. The "Here are my ideas on the Flabushnik situation" message. The purpose of any such communication is to make your recipient want to know more. To wit:
    Dear _______, The Flabushnik thing will work if we 1) pay him enough money, 2) make him go away by next Thursday. Send up a smoke signal if you agree. Thanks, Harry.
    Pithy? Yep! Cybernetic? No way!

  4. The "Here's what I think of your idea on the marketing issue" message. Sometimes you need to communicate something equivocal. All the more reason to be tender, warm, and loving.
    Dear ______, A free poached salmon with guacamole is waiting for you next Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. at Café Fauteuil. At that time, you may also hear six things that I think are wrong with your proposal of October 3rd. See ya there! Best, Gary.
    Who could resent that?

  5. The "Here's what I plan to do in regard to Ms Cromagnon" message. Most sensitive are human resource issues that pertain to individuals who need schooling of some sort. Beware! A whisper on an indication with a soupcon of deniability is all that's required:
    My dear ______, Ms. Cromagnon's obvious strengths as an employee must have become obvious to someone at some point in her illustrious career. Please forward such evidence to me,as I must confess that her existing file is bulging with conflicting impressions. Looking forward to your reply, I remain yours very truly, Maury.

  6. The "Here's what I really think about the chairman's plan acquire Romania" message. Finally, various and sundry people will be stupid enough to call for dangerous opinions to be expressed in this forum. Resist.
    Call me, _______, There are some things that donít belong on e-mail and here is one of them. Ten-four. Jerry

And when you sit down to write your 23rd cryptic mini-message of the day --- how about a really bright idea, Sparky? Pick up a phone!