eMail without tears or fears

Hardly a week passes without someone leaking, blooping, or generally screwing up by email.

Recently details of the Bank of England’s pre-planning in case the UK referendum called for withdrawal from the EU (‘Brexit’) were inadvertently emailed to The Guardian newspaper. The content was so confidential that even the government was unaware of the project, yet by adding a single addressee to its distribution list, all secrecy was blown away.

At its best, email is a real boon. A carefully thought-out, sensitively-phrased message can save lots of time, money, and effort. We can all think of our email successes, but so can we readily recount numerous incidents in which email miscommunication has cost us time, money, effort, and worse.

So I have six simple questions that I try to apply to all but the most trivial of messages.

Do I really mean to send that to the world?

Probably our most frequent email blooper is to copy messages to inappropriate recipients, maybe the person who bears the brunt of its contents, or even worse their boss or a potentially hostile superior. We make this mistake often because, unlike any other form of communication, it is so easy to add another recipient to the address list. This makes it simple to keep others informed, but equally easy to send the wrong information to the wrong recipient. So my first comms check is to ensure that all recipients are appropriate and necessary.

Did I read my email through before clicking on send?

Searing criticism has its place, maybe even the occasional expletive when contextually appropriate, but email is not intended to be pure personal catharsis. Sometimes composing a scathingly witty message makes us feel better about some conflict or display of overt idiocy. But wait before sending this emotional outpouring until that initial feeling of relief has subsided: my second check is to ponder whether I will rue the moment that I clicked on the Send button.

How many ends are there to that stick?

We often read messages very quickly, form an instant impression of what they said, and respond on that basis. Before launching forth into the reply, we must read the message to which we are replying again, very carefully. Where necessary, track back through the message chain to check that you really are grasping the right end of the stick. So many mail exchanges get nowhere because their parties witter on at cross purposes.

Did I read what others wrote earlier?

Even if I have got the right end of the stick, previous messages in the chain may well have anticipated what I intend writing. Although I dislike Outlook’s default – and thus near-universal – habit of tagging the whole message chain below each reply, it does at least allow me to learn what ground has already been covered. There is no point in my repeating what has already been said.

Did I express myself with economy and clarity?

When I keep coming back to draft my response, it is easy for it to grow to the point where the kernel of its content is lost among lesser, even trivial matters. Although being subtle and polite might appear to make it tougher to be terse, it is worth taking the time to make the message punchy (in a non-combative way) and effective. If necessary, I must state my main point succinctly at the start before going on to root around the weeds.

Finally, would I do better speaking to the intended recipient rather than sending email?

It may be tricky to co-ordinate meeting face to face, or speaking on the phone, but so often I could settle an issue in a couple of minutes of talk, rather than protracted message exchanges spanning a week or more.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 25, 2011.