December 13, 2000, 11:01 AM — FOR IT PROFESSIONALS at all levels, communicating effectively via e-mail can be
a challenge. Some messages go to other technical staff members; others go to
nontechnical users. And it is all too easy to fire off an e-mail message in anger or to
convey the wrong impression based on the words you use or omit.
Gary Erwin is the director of communications and an instructor of English and
technical and business writing at Kettering University, in Flint, Mich.
In a recent interview, Erwin offered tips on how to better use e-mail as a
InfoWorld: How is e-mail unique as a method of communicating? What are its inherent
strengths and weaknesses?
Erwin: Primarily, e-mail is an immediate communication tool. Business can get done
quicker, and ideas can be communicated very rapidly. It's a great tool for developing
ideas. It inspires interactive communication between people, which leads to greater
The problem with e-mail is that people don't tend to think about what they say.
There can be discrepancies in meaning, emotional outbursts, and so on. People don't
take time to rationally consider the message. In an e-mail environment, people normally
don't think about emotional or political implications.
You should consider your message before you send it and not just jot it down as you
go. You may come across as harsh or cold. I see this happen a lot. Spell checks and
grammar checks don't necessarily help. One, they don't catch everything, and two, the
context can still be wrong.
InfoWorld: What should someone consider when crafting an e-mail message?
Erwin: Audience and purpose. Always consider your audience first, as well as your
purpose for writing. That goes for print media as well, but especially for e-mail.
I constantly see it -- people writing everything in uppercase letters, for example.
That, to me, means you're angry, and I'm not going to deal with that. Don't use
uppercase letters, and don't boldface certain words.
Also, don't just fire it off. First write it out, then fix it. Always try to be
politically neutral -- use phrases that aren't hot buttons. For example, "Supervisor
Smith said in a curt manner that ... "
Don't use that kind of phrase. Instead, write "Supervisor Smith said that ... "
You have to [understand that] sometimes language can mean different things to
different people. For example, instead of writing, "I have a problem with you,"
write, "There are some issues we need to discuss." It's a little more desensitized and