by Tom Spring
(IDG) -- For centuries, letter writers have pained to get everything from the salutation to the John Hancock as perfect as possible. But the rules for e-mail have yet to be written. Now, Harvard Business School Publishing is proposing a first draft called The Ten Commandments of E-Mail.
Its high time, says Philadelphia-based communications coach Nick Morgan, who wrote the list in the March issue of Harvard Communications Update. "More and more companies today live in an e-mail culture," Morgan says. "That has meant real losses and gains." Drawing on his own experience and that of clients, he says, high volumes of e-mail are one of the biggest problems for workers today. "Its getting to the point where we show up at work read our e-mail, respond to it, and then go home," he says.
According to estimates by International Data Corporation, about 2.1 billion e-mail messages are sent each day in the United States. By 2002 that number is expected to jump to 8 billion.
The Ten Commandments of E-Mail:
- "You have several choices," reads the first commandment. "Scan headers, and delete everything you dont need to know or act upon materially." Its okay to ignore an e-mail the same way you might a letter or a phone message.
Delete that e-mail.
And when you are sending messages, remember that they should be short and informal, and that they cant replace a phone call.
- The second commandment chides those who send attachments. "An enormous amount of time and energy is wasted in the corporate world by people struggling with incompatible formats, files that never arrived, and attachments that got garbled or stripped off the message."
Break free from attachments.
Instead, find a good spot on a company intranet for posting and downloading. And on the receiving end, of course, exercise extreme care in opening up files from strangers, to avoid problems like the Melissa virus.
- Dont send e-mail when youre tired or furious. "E-mail can easily be angry, hurtful, or critical," Morgan says. "It takes a lot of time to undo the damage." Treat e-mail like letters and phone calls; wait for a calmer moment to respond.
Count to 10, then send.
- Never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meetingespecially when it comes to reprimanding, rewarding, or firing someone.
Theres nothing like the real thing.
Also remember that misdirected messages can get messy, especially when they are of a personal nature. Morgan recounts the story of a personal note accidentally sent company-wide rather than to one amorous friend (who has been known as "Tiger" ever since.) "I hear stories like these all the time," Morgan says.
- Take advantage of the timesaving bells and whistles your e-mail program offers. Keep an up-to-date address book, and never delete names and addresses. You never know when someone will come back into your digital life.
A stitch in time.
- Chain e-mail is not only tacky, its banned from many corporate networks. Consider the bandwidth lost to Bill Gates jokes alone, says Morgan. These beasts with monstrous headers and massive footers should be squelched at all costs.
Break the chain.
- Dont pass on rumor or innuendo about real people. This could come back to haunt you. E-mail can be easily forwarded to the wrong person, or worse, to the subject of your non-affection.
Rumor, gossip, and hearsay.
Not only does e-mail have an uncanny ability of being resurrected, as Microsoft knows, it can also be used against you in a court of law.
- Flamingsending an abusive or insulting e-mail is usually a mistake. Would you say it in person? If not, dont send it.
Do unto others.
- Remember the hierarchy when it comes to communications. First there is face-to-face meetings, then phone calls, then voice mail, and then e-mail. Face-to-face meetings have the most impact and e-mail has the narrowest communications bandwidth.
Its hard enough to communicate successfully under the best of circumstances, says Morgan. If its an important message that cant be said face-to-face, then pick up the phone, or leave voice mail. Or, if you must, send an e-mail.
- If it absolutely must be perfect, then dont e-mail it. E-mail can be the Bermuda Triangle of writing. Punctuation, spelling and grammar get mysteriously lost. If your message must be error-free, it should be sent by another medium. If you insist on sending it via e-mail, print it out and go over it line by line for errors.
No one is perfect.
But if you find yourself printing your e-mail regularly, it means that either you or the sender misunderstand the chief purpose of the medium, says Morgan.
March 31, 1999
Web posted at: 9:54 a.m. EST (1454 GMT)