Sunday, September 12, 2010

Email: A Blessing or a Curse?

“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people.” ~Jim Rohn

Of all the technologies that have emerged for communications in the last couple of decades, email is among the most revolutionary. It has completely changed the way we communicate, making it so much easier than any other method that has been available in the last 20 years.

At one time, typewriters were a critical element for communicating via U.S. Mail. It was such a slow and cumbersome process. I still remember struggling to align the paper, and making a correction was very, very difficult.

However, despite all the improvements and efficiencies email brought with it, there are a number of issues that users should be aware of. By far, the most important of these is that once you hit send, it is nearly impossible to recover or amend the message.

In light of this, proofreading is absolutely critical. And more than just checking for grammatical errors, you should be verifying that you have said exactly what you mean and are aware of how your message might be interpreted.

Additionally, email and emotion are a dangerous combination. If you are having strong feelings of any kind – positive or negative – it is best to wait until your emotions settle before hitting send. The fallout from an inappropriate email can be devastating.

I have seen managers send out an angry email to a staff member who messed up, only to realize later that they acted before they had all the facts. The damage from this kind of email can never be repaired.

Another shortcoming of email is that it is a flat form of communication. Consisting of nothing more than words, it is impossible to communicate emotion via email. People often forget this fact and send email messages that really should be delivered in person.

Sending an email to congratulate a team member on some accomplishment, for example, may fall short of the mark since you can not really express your feelings of joy. You would really want to deliver a message like this in a face-to-face meeting or in front of his or her entire team.

Most people, including me, get way too many emails, and one thing that absolutely drives me crazy is receiving a message that covers three or four different items. Sending a message like this significantly impairs the receiver’s ability to respond quickly.

When I receive emails that cover more than one topic, it automatically drops down on my priority list because I have to save the message until I have more time to respond. For this reason, it is so important to cover only one point in each message. You will find that people will respond much more quickly to one-topic emails.

Another of my email pet peeves is long narratives. Most decision makers want just the facts. Email is not a good place to practice elegant writing 101. I want an email that is no longer than one paragraph so I can quickly respond with a short answer. Most people are so limited on time that brevity must be the rule and not the exception with this medium.

The subject line is another critical element. In order to get your message read, the subject line must be both precise and accurate. One entrepreneur wrote “important” in the subject line of every single email she sent. Eventually, her staff began ignoring her messages. The more precise your subject line, the more successful the communication will be.

Lastly, email should not be used to communicate anything that is really important or personal. If you want to tell a staff member about a problem you are having with their work, email is just not appropriate.

For instance, if I have an employee that has not been meeting their sales goals, sending them an email about improving their numbers is going to do more to irritate them than accomplish anything of value. It really is best to address an issue like this in a face-to-face meeting that allows you to discuss how you can work with them to improve their sales.

Overall, email is a very effective communication tool, but it should not be your default. It is just not always going to be the appropriate choice. Now go out and make sure that you are using emails effectively in your organization.

You can do this!

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