Communication Etiquette

March 13th, 2007

E-mail seems to be the preferred method of communication for teams regardless of how widely dispersed they might be to one another.  Although distance sometimes has nothing to do with the preference of using e-mail versus just talking.  I have worked with staff that were separated by short (<five feet high) work space partitions and insisted on sending a constant stream of e-mails to one another versus just standing up or going to get a cup of coffee together!  E-mail is a poor substitute for the personal interaction of carrying on a conversation, but if you must then at least review the set of guidelines below.  

  1. Be clear, concise, and informative.  Use a short descriptive subject line that actually pertains to the body of your e-mail.  Something that would grab the readers’ attention: “QA Testing Identifies show stopper – project in jeopardy of Completion”.  OK, who said subject lines had to be two words.  Mixing uppercase and lowercase letters is perfectly fine in a business setting.  Leaving the subject line blank means either you are too lazy to summarize your thoughts or everyone should just know your e-mails are important because they come from you!

  2. What is important?  What is the primary message you want to convey?  That primary message should be within the first couple of lines of the e-mail, as most people tend to skim messages and not read everything thoroughly.  If you have not answered “who, what, when, where, why, or how” within the first couple of lines, you probably have lost the reader.  And then again, if your e-mail does NOT have anything that pertains to the point made above, then why are you sending it in the first place?

  3. Proofread.  Automatic spell checkers in e-mail messaging systems are great, but they don’t catch improperly used words or analyze sentence structure or content.  If the e-mail has to be longer than this blog, then do it in a word processing document so you can go back later and re-read and proof.  You will be amazed at how many grammatical goofs you catch when you take the time.  E-mails reflect you.  If they read like they were composed by someone with low intellectual capabilities, you might be leaving an incorrect impression.

  4. Cultural difference and time zones.  Teams today are made up of people from the around the world and might actually work in a different time zone than the sender.  This time difference might be as little as 1 hour to as much as 12 hours.  Cultural differences and the inability for the reader to pick up the phone and discuss means you should avoid acronyms, abbreviations, slang and local jargon.  Rely on simple vocabulary and conventional syntax.  If in doubt, err on the side of formality and avoid attempting humor in the beginning.  Time differences can work in your favor.  If you want an action taken by someone hours away, then give them the information they need so they can work on the action at the beginning of their day.

  5. Avoid “REPLY ALL”.  Send your e-mail out to people that have a vested interest or that are actually assigned to do something.  Determine who must receive the message and who can survive without it.  E-mail replies might get strung together to the point that you have lost track of the original intention of the e-mail.  At some point, it is a good method to summarize the e-mail as a form of a status or action plan and then send again if necessary.  It is my contention that e-mails that survive for weeks with just a massive string of replies means you should probably hold a conference call, summarize, develop an action plan and move on!