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Dispatches from the wired world

August 1st, 2010 / By: / Marketing

A checklist for making your e-mail more effective.

By most accounts, e-mail has become the most prevalent form of business communication today. But because e-mail is so easy to prepare—a few clicks on the keyboard and a press of the “send” button—many e-mail messages go out without a lot of care and proofreading. In a business setting, the common shortcuts and shortcomings of e-mail can undercut the professionalism of your communications.

Good e-mail presents information in a succinct and appropriate manner. The following checklist is a primer for those wanting to avoid some common pitfalls.

Do you respond promptly?

Like it or not, individuals who send e-mail expect fast responses, usually within a day. If you’re not checking your e-mail several times a day, consider having an assistant help with the task.

Do you alert recipients about your content?

With junk e-mail and spam cluttering the online world, it’s usually a good idea to include a brief descriptor in the “subject” line of your message.

Do you use a conversational tone?

If you don’t, you should. E-mail messages are more like live conversation than formal letters. While you should observe the basic rules of language, you should also try to keep the conversation light. This usually means short sentences, an easy-to-understand vocabulary, and bulleted points when necessary.

Do you send one- or two-word replies to indicate your appreciation of e-mail sent by others?

These messages frequently come in discussion groups or when subjects are being addressed by a number of individuals. You know the type: “Thanks.” “Send to me too.” “Wow.” Don’t send these. They irritate most recipients.

Do you avoid unnecessary attachments?

Many e-mail recipients are justifiably wary of opening any attachment, so don’t send them unless you have background files that can’t be presented in any other way. Avoid sending attachments prepared in unusual formats. The recipient may not be able to open them, particularly if she or he is using a hand-held device.

Do you use unusual backgrounds or formats?

Generally, it’s a good idea to avoid these. They occasionally cause loading problems on the other end of the message. Clever colors and design may also suggest a lack of professionalism to the recipient.

Do you send messages in text format?

It’s a good idea to stick to straight text. While most computer systems support applications such as HTML, you risk annoying your recipients if they can’t access the full content.

Do you organize the material you present?

The rule of thumb: one short paragraph for each point or idea you’re presenting to the reader. Remember: e-mail messages do not require elaborate introductory paragraphs.

Do you refer to prior messages or threads?

While you don’t need lengthy introductions, consider jogging the recipient’s memory with a reference to a prior e-mail message. Or, if the prior message is brief, simply include it with your reply.

Do you observe spelling, grammatical and syntax rules?

No one expects you to play the part of Shakespeare when you’re writing e-mails, but display your professionalism by adhering to the rules of the language. Proofread everything, even if it’s just a quick once-over.

Do you write in CAPITALS?

Don’t. Capitals convey SHOUTING. If you want to emphasize a particular word or phrase, boldface or italicize it, or place asterisks (*) on either side of the phrase.

Do you use the “recall” feature when you make an e-mail error?

It’s far better to proofread your messages carefully first. But if you still make an error, chances are that some of your recipients will read your message before it’s recalled. In that case, it’s better to forget the “recall” function and simply send a brief message of apology for your error.

Do you use standard replies for routine inquiries?

Templates contain standard information, and usually require no editing or customization. They’re great for information about ordering procedures, directions and company background.

Do you use emoticons?

These simple graphical symbols, used effectively, can pack a punch. But not everyone understands the meaning behind emoticons. Unless you know the recipient well—and you’re sure that she or he is conversant with these images—avoid them.

Do you discuss confidential information in your e-mail messages?

Don’t. The risk of duplication is too great, and e-mail recipients may wonder about your sense of propriety. If you need to review confidential matters, discuss them on the phone or in person.

Do you send “flames” in response to spam?

Sending an angry retort may make you feel good temporarily, but it won’t block further spam. In fact, your reply may simply confirm to the spammer that your e-mail address is a live one. When you receive spam, simply delete it, and check with your IT department on your system’s current spam filters.

Do you criticize those who send inappropriate messages?

Rule of thumb: If you receive inappropriate bulk messages, just delete them. If you receive a message from someone you know that fails to observe etiquette principles, don’t send a harsh rejoinder. A brief, kind word of explanation might be in order, however.

Do you send copies of messages out to colleagues?

Send cc’s and bcc’s only when others need to know the information you’re imparting. It’s easy to send messages and replies to distribution lists or to hit “reply to all,” but these messages clog recipients’ e-mail boxes and get many peripheral recipients unnecessarily involved in your activities. The result is confusion and inefficiency.

When sending bulk e-mails, do you personalize the messages?

If not, consider merging text with your e-mail list, or using a distribution service. You’ll avoid privacy concerns as a result, and, more important in the case of customer messages, you’ll provide that all-important personal touch frequently lacking in electronic communication.

Do you forward fascinating chain letters?

You’ve seen them—the heartrending story of a dying eight-year-old who wants a hundred thousand e-mails, or the cute joke that’s already been passed around the nation. When you receive these messages, contemplate or enjoy them if you like. But then delete them.

Do you empower the reader to take further action?

A good e-mail message lets your reader know precisely what she or he needs to do if questions remain or if further action is required.

Do you involve your computer services expert or service provider with problems?

If you have serious problems with e-mail, such as excessive spam or problematic attachments, involve the folks who can help remedy the situation.

Electronic communication isn’t going away anytime soon, and keeping it as convenient, efficient and error-free as possible will keep both internal and external customers happier and more responsive.

Richard Ensman is a business writer based in Rochester, N.Y.

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