How to write an effective e-mail
by Susan Adams, Forbes.com
Monday, August 9, 2010
provided by forbes
Get to the point, keep it short, and assume it’s public, say the experts.
In July 2008, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford e-mailed his Latin lover, praising “the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.” That now-public note is just the latest example of how even the most politically savvy pro can be an idiot when it comes to electronic mail.
Cardinal rule numero uno: Assume that e-mail is public. Even if you’re sending it over a secure server or to an account you think you’ve set up in secret, if people want to read your notes and share them with the world, they will.
Despite e-mail’s growing ubiquity, few have mastered the art of writing an effective one. In an effort to compile some pointers on how to do so, we consulted three experts: Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home; Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload; and Peter Post, one of the directors of the Emily Post Institute and author of five books on etiquette.
Evidence that the dos and don’ts of e-mail have yet to solidify: The experts disagree on several pertinent points. While Peter Post insists on polite salutations (“Dear Mr. or Ms.”) and courteous endings (“Sincerely”) and recommends always using an e-mail signature at the end of a business note, Hurst says none of that matters. “Is he set up to run a steam-powered computer and read through his monocle?” Hurst sniffs.
For his part, Post says emoticons have no place in business e-mail. On the contrary, say both Hurst and Schwalbe; because irony and humor are so frequently misconstrued in e-mail notes, the emoticon offers a quick, effective way to convey feelings. “Emoticons are necessary,” Hurst maintains, “because there is no subtlety in e-mail, and jokes do not transmit well.”
Quibbles aside, there are e-mail rules on which our experts agree. Among the most important: Get to the point immediately. Keep your notes as short as possible. Avoid extended blocks of text by breaking up your writing into short paragraphs or bullets. And keep in mind what we all already know: Everyone is busy and gets too much e-mail.
One more caveat: When you receive a rude or angry note, do not reply right away. Negative emotions can escalate all too quickly in e-mails. “Just delete it,” advises Hurst to those who receive a cranky missive.
Or here’s a novel idea: Pick up the phone.