Netiquette: How to make your e-mails mean business

In an age of electronic communication it’s hard to remember a time before e-mail, although it has been in widespread use for less than 20 years.

Today, according to market research firm the Radicati Group, more than 170 billion messages are sent worldwide each day – that’s almost 2 million e-mails every second. The technology has truly transformed the workplace and the way we interact.

And while HR professionals have concerned themselves with privacy issues and the amount of time employees spend sending personal e-mails, few employers have focused on what makes a good business e-mail and the do’s and don’ts of e-mail etiquette.

But a new book covering this thorny subject is to be published in the UK next month.

Already a New York Times bestseller Send: The How, Why, When – and When Not – of E-Mail attempts to get to the bottom of why so many of us send poorly constructed and unnecessary e-mails, and what we should do to communicate more effectively.

Misunderstanding and confusion

Authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe say a culture where people have been allowed to get away with sending sloppy and vague e-mails has resulted in misunderstanding and confusion. Inappropriate wording and e-mail construction has led to indignation and, in extreme cases, offence.

“E-mail demands that we figure out who we are in relation to the person we are writing to and that we get our tone right from the outset,” they counsel.

According to Monica Seeley, founder of UK-based e-mail best practice consultancy Mesmo, an increasing number of organisations now realise that training staff in how to send well-formulated and suitably worded e-mails can bring business benefits.

“They are starting to understand that any e-mail from an employee is a representation of the company,” she said. “If the e-mail is sloppy, this will reflect badly on the organisation, so they want to lay down some ground rules.”

Seeley has written a book on e-mail usage and works with a range of organisations. She says the blurring of lines between business and social communication is a major cause of improper e-mail use. While starting an e-mail with an informal ‘Hi’ and ending it with a kiss may be fine if you work in PR or media sales, it might not go down so well if you are a professional in sectors such as engineering or law.

Simple rules

Seely has come up with six simple rules that she says every business e- mail should comply with. It must be properly laid out; written in plain English with no jargon and no text-speak; have an accurate subject line; relate to a business issue; be less than a half screen in length; and be about a single topic.

“Review the e-mail before you send it, and if you haven’t covered at least five of the rules, you are in danger of sending a valueless e-mail, which will result in confusion and e-mail ping-pong,” said Seeley.

But perhaps the crux of the issue stems from the fact that e-mail systems are set up to benefit the sender, not the recipient, says Nick Shelness, a senior analyst at Ferris Research and a former chief technical officer at messaging software provider Lotus.

Reply to all

His particular bugbear is people’s tendency’s to overuse the CC function.

“Most systems make it too easy for users to press the ‘reply to all’ button. People need to think more about who they copy in and when,” he said.

For Shelness, true e-mail etiquette is considering the impact on the person you are sending the e-mail to and the effort you are requiring from them.

Sentiments echoed by Shipley and Schwalbe in their book’s conclusion. “Send e-mail you would like to receive,” is their parting pearl of wisdom.

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