Ten New Year’s Resolutions we ought to make about Email


On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the telegraph message "What hath God wrought?" from the Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore, Maryland. The telegraph collapsed the world and made it possible to communicate instantly between places that formerly had taken weeks and even months to say something or get an answer. Henry David Thoreau observed "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic . . . ; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." If Thoreau and Emerson were worried 150 years ago about junk telegrams just think what they’d have to say about email. 


Five changes email has brought


Ten great New Year’s Resolutions


1. I resolve to write clear subject lines. Describe what you want in the subject line say, “2 questions before board mtg.” or “You have any open appointments Wednesday?” or “My outline for your review.”  Avoid subject lines with obscure phrases like “Just checking” or “Message outline” or “hey” and never leave it blank.


2. I resolve to use FYI and AYC in the subject line. If you are sending something just “For your information” and there is no action required, put FYI first in the subject line-- “FYI—draft of 2009 budget.” If you don’t expect a person to read it today and you are sending it for them to read “At Your Convenience” start with AYC in the subject line.


3. I resolve to keep it short. State everything you expect to be read in the first paragraph or at the most first screen. Give backup data below this in case they need more info. Write the top last.


4. I resolve to begin at the end. State your question or decision you want made right off. Avoid several paragraphs clearing your throat or lengthy preambles or background statements. Put that at the end.


5. I resolve to use reply-to-all sparingly. When the boss’s secretary emails a staff of 18 asking “Who is available this Sunday to work at the welcome center?” answer the secretary and don’t reply-to-all 18 people saying “I’m not available.” Why make 17 other people delete your junk reply-to-all. Reply-to-all is a function for discussions and deliberations where everyone is “talking” back and forth on a subject.


6. I resolve to restrict cc’s to necessary people. Sometimes people are so proud of their work they add a dozen folk in the cc line just so everyone will know how much they’re doing. This is a cheap and fast way to boast which is often how it looks.


7. I resolve to be careful of ever using bcc. A bcc sends your message (and sometimes a whole confidential conversation) to another person secretly. The ethics of using bcc are increasingly being questioned and if you need to share another person’s message to someone else simple decency should make us ask the person first. And when you send your own message secretly to another it is far safer to paste your message into another FYI email than add a person as a bcc. Remember if you add a bcc address that person might click reply-to-all and then everyone will then know you secretly included them as a bcc.


8. I resolve to avoid making recipients do extra work. When you attach a file be kind enough to take a few extra seconds to paste it into the email as well as attaché it—to save people time in opening files. It’s just considerate. 


9. I resolve to never use blinking images. Those cute little blinking images in your email take longer for the recipient to load and sometimes even automatically will divert your email to the junk mailbox.  A related matter is using a picture of your actual signature if you hold a position where you might worry about someone pilfering your signature and using it on an unauthorized  letter or form.


10. I resolve to not be a spammer. Sending email is like printing money, the more you send the less value each of your emails have. You won’t know this until you stumble on people who don’t remember your emails—sometimes because they have made a filter to divert them into their junk mail box!  


Email has been a wonderful blessing of in communication. It is also a curse. If we are just a bit more careful our own emails might be considered more of a blessing than a curse.


So what do you think? What resolution would you suggest?

During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   January 6, 2009




Related column:  Tips on handling the Email blizzard