Before you send e-mail, think of the reader
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
Courtesy is a good virtue in writing e-mail messages. In fact, I tell people to be
overly courteous because e-mails can offend easily. Politeness certainly has a role in
I used to work in the corporate world. Workers in any place where deadlines are
tight tend to fire off e-mails off the cuff. When people fire them off so rapidly, it
can undermine your overall message.
InfoWorld: What are some of the deadly sins of e-mail communication?
Erwin: Don't write out an emotional situation.
If you're angry, sit back and relax. Get back that emotional balance. It's like
being married: If my wife and I have an argument, we may say things that we don't mean
to say. It's better to step back and think first. The wrong message can be sent very
You just have to be careful -- consider your auddience and your purpose for writing
the e-mail in the first place.
Technology dictates that we should get information out as quickly as possible.
That's fine, but the problem is we should always consider how people are going to
interpret our messages. People [could] get the wrong impression of you.
People have more respect for you if you respond succinctly and nonemotionally.
You're just trying to get [the readers] the information. [During] face-to-face
conversation is when you should express any emotions.
Don't use any hot words.
InfoWorld: How can you steer clear of these deadly sins and instead craft
effective, clear e-mail messages?
Erwin: If you're responding to an e-mail, read the first message very carefully.
I'll answer e-mails very neutrally. I don't give away any emotion.
Don't go into complicated, long e-mail messages. You can't engage in a conversation
via e-mail. What you can do well is supply information.
What you don't want to do is present any emotional instability or anger. It's not