E-mail has become one of the most common methods of business and personal communication. It’s fast, efficient, convenient—and it can be dangerous. Consider these tips for getting the maximum benefit while avoiding the pitfalls of e-mail, whether you’re at work or home.
o E-mail is not private. You can add all the disclaimers you want to your signature line that your e-mails are “privileged and confidential, ” but the reality is, once you put something out on the internet, or even on your company’s internal system, you have no control over where it ultimately ends up and who sees it. Don’t count on simply deleting messages to protect you; most e-mail systems have automatic storage features where your e-mails could stay and eventually be recovered. No matter how much you trust the person you’re corresponding with, the best rule is to never put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper.
o Casual is okay, sloppy is not. It’s perfectly acceptable to begin an e-mail with “Bill, ” instead of “Dear Mr. Smith:”. And e-mails don’t require the structure of traditional formal written correspondence. But use correct grammar and make sure everything is spelled properly. And proofread, proofread, proofread. It’s far too easy to accidentally leave a word out and change the entire meaning of your message.
o Observe accepted e-mail etiquette. Be concise and to the point. Don’t type in all capital letters (that’s considered shouting)—but don’t type entirely in lower case, either; capitalize where appropriate. Don’t spam. Don’t forward messages or attachments without permission. Don’t forward chain letters. Don’t send or forward e-mails that contain libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist, sexist, or obscene comments.
o Before you hit send, be sure your message is complete and is going to the right person. Sending a blank or incomplete message can be embarrassing or worse. For e-mails you originate, make the address the last thing you do—that way, the message can’t be sent until you’re ready. For replies, take care not to hit the “send” button prematurely. And always check to make sure the address is accurate. We may laugh at stories of people who sent messages to the wrong people, but the reality is, such errors can damage your reputation, cost you business and money, and ruin relationships.
o Remember that e-mail is not 100 percent reliable. Spam filters and system failures can cause messages to end up somewhere in cyberspace. If it’s important, request a receipt confirmation by either using the tool in your e-mail software or specifically asking the receiver to acknowledge the message.
o Use your out-of-office auto-reply if you’re not going to be able to answer e-mails promptly. If you won’t have access to your e-mail for a day or more, use an auto-reply to let people know that there will be a delay in your response. Let them know who to contact if the situation is urgent. When you are in the office, answer your e-mails as promptly as possible while still maintaining your productivity. You may, for example, want to set aside two or three times a day that you read and reply to e-mail. Stopping to read and reply each time a message comes in could mean you’ll do little else besides deal with e-mail. The other side of this is that you should understand when you don’t receive prompt replies from others. Recognize that they may be busy, in meetings, or out of the office, and be patient.
o Be cautious with abbreviations and acronyms. E-mail has spawned a language of its own, but don’t use abbreviations and acronyms your reader might not understand—or worse, might misunderstand. For example, SWAG means “scientific wild ass guess” but in some circles, it also means “software and giveaways. ” Even the common LOL which usually means “laughing out loud” could instead be intended to mean “lots of luck. ” It’s always better to spell things out and be clear.
o Use humor sparingly or not at all. E-mail is a one-dimensional communication without the benefit of tone or facial expression. Even including a smiley face or other humor indicator may not have the effect you want. It’s much safer to just avoid using humor completely.
o E-mail praise but not reprimands. E-mail is a great tool for quick and timely electronic pats on the back, but should never be used for any sort of negative appraisal.
o Include a subject line appropriate for your message. Focus on one issue per e-mail and make it clear in your subject line so the recipient can find your message quickly and will know what it’s about.
o Use a signature line with your full name, title, and contact information in case the person you’re e-mailing wants to contact you by a means other than e-mail. Include links to your website and blog if you have one. A very, very brief marketing message is also acceptable.
o Don’t let e-mail replace human interaction. E-mail may be efficient, but we still need real face-to-face conversation.
If you have a business, it should have a comprehensive e-mail policy and every employee should be trained on what that policy includes. Make e-mail work for you, not against you.
Jacquelyn Lynn is the author of Online Shopper’s Survival Guide (Entrepreneur Press, August 2006) and co-author of Make Big Profits on eBay: Start Your Own Million $ Business (with Charlene Davis, Entrepreneur Press, 2005) and the author of ten titles in Entrepreneur’s Start-Up Guide Series. For more information, visit http://www.jacquelynlynn.com