The Ten Commandments Of Email

Last Friday after turning on my Mac, I found over 175 e-mail messages waiting for me. Over time, I have developed my own system of dealing with the messages so that I don’t feel overwhelmed. But it takes constant work and vigilance to stay on top of the mail deluge. In 1999, Harvard Management ran an article setting forth “The Ten Commandments of E-MAIL.”

Below, I’ve summarized and/or updated some of these commandments which I believe still make sense to help control clutter and make e-mail work for us, vs. against us.

1. Use Email Only When It’s The Most Efficient Channel: Never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meeting, especially when it comes to rewarding or firing someone. Face-to-face communication is best when dealing with sensitive or personal issues.

2. Tone it Down: The one thing that email does not carry is “tone.” Thus, a factual email can appear cold, or an offhand message snippy. An all-caps message can read like shouting, or a ransom note. Nor does irony work in e-mail: “No! Really, I mean it. Not! Lol. Just kidding!” You may be hilarious in person, but in e-mail it’s just annoying. Be like a news anchor and remove all tone from your delivery.

3. Never Forward Chain E-mail: Chain e-mail is not only tacky, it’s banned from many corporate networks. Consider the bandwidth lost related to Tiger Woods jokes alone as of late. These beasts with monstrous headers and massive footers should be squelched at all costs. Just say no.

4. Never EVER Send E-Mail When You’re Angry: E-mail can easily be hurtful and it can take a lot of time to undo the damage that may result. Unlike a paper letter which can be torn up or otherwise destroyed, an email exists in electronic form FOREVER. If you find you are emotionally charged while writing and e-mail, don’t immediately hit send. Save it instead to your drafts folder, and revisit the following day.

5. Don’t Pass On Rumor or Innuendo About People or Your Company: Don’t pass on gossip as it could come back to haunt you. E-mail can be easily forwarded to the wrong person and not only does it have an uncanny ability of being resurrected, it can also be used against you in a court of law.

6. Get to the Point: Nobody expects or wants to hear your weekend recap. Nor is it necessary to enquire about the recipient’s family and well-being. A simple greeting is sufficient and then get to the reason for your email. Be very specific about what you want (your ask), and be succinct. Two paragraphs, maximum.

7. No attachments Please: Much time is wasted over files that are difficult to download or in the wrong format. Where possible, find a spot on your site or your firm’s intranet for posting large files. And of course, take extreme care when opening files on the receiving end, especially if it is from an unsolicited source, as it could indicate a corrupted document or virus.

8. Grammar and Spelling Still Count: “Can U plz send info for 2nite thx” may be fine for texting, but not for most email purposes. Take the extra time to spell something correctly and use proper punctuation and grammar. Anything else just looks lazy. Proper grammar is the sign of a professional, and a mark of respect for the recipient as well as yourself.

9. Greetings: Take the time to formulate an appropriate subject heading so the recipient’s knows what to expect, and get the spelling of their name correct! One subject per e-mail is the general rule. If you’re forwarding an email, say why you think the recipient will be interested. Don’t assume they will know why you’re sending it.

10. What’s in a Name? Coolkat69 is fine if you’re twelve, or commenting on a blog, but for most working professionals, use your own name or a variation thereof.

Sign Off: Yours sincerely, goodbye, ciao, best wishes? What’s the best way to sign off? Well, it depends. The proper way to sign off is often one of the most difficult things to get right, and will depend on who the recipient is. My general rule is: when in doubt, end e-mails with a simple “thanks.” It covers all situations, is respectful (you’re thanking them for reading), and never looks out of place.