How Did We Get Here?

The first email message was sent in 1971 by a computer engineer called Ray Tomlinson. He can’t remember the exact date he sent his email or what he wrote. The Queen sent an email in 1976 on Arpanet, but it wasn’t until 1996 that a few companies – including the fledgling Hotmail – began to offer free, use-anywhere, internet email. Fast forward to today and we have more than 4.1 billion email accounts across the globe. Approximately 294 billion emails are sent every day; roughly 78% of them are spam.

Email has one defining quality: it’s fast. Your message can travel the globe and reach multiple recipients in seconds. It takes even less than a second to ‘cc’ another recipient into your email or click ‘Reply all.’ In roughly twenty years, email has transformed the way we communicate in all spheres. In our businesses, workplaces, governments, and organisations, email has become pervasive and acutely problematic.

Email’s success is also its curse. The ease with which a message can be transmitted, copied, multiplied and made public has left many of us feeling as if we are drowning in email. Collectively, we have created a modern tragedy of the commons. Furthermore, no-one seems to be in charge. What does everyone else consider to be good manners when it comes to style, tone and content for an email? And, is there, a best practice standard in email land?

TED Curator Chris Anderson crystalized this view in a blog post in 2011. His basic premise was that email takes us more time to process than it does to create.

“This is a problem that can’t be solved by individuals acting alone,” he said. “Email stress comes from all the unanswered emails in your inbox, and the fear that you may be causing offense or frustration to your friends and colleagues. If we can mutually agree some different ground rules, that stress can go away.”

From here sprang the idea of the email charter: http://www.emailcharter.org/

 

We’ve Had This Problem Before

The collective sense of frustration, fear and anxiety that swirls around our latest piece of communication technology is an old one. We can find a similar disruptive period if we go back to 1440-1450, when German metal worker, John Guttenberg, first conceived of movable type page-setting and combined this technology with oil-based ink and wine presses. The days of laborious copying of manuscripts by hand were over; fast mass production and distribution of the written word had begun.

The resultant modern printing presses were a transformative technology that precipitated massive societal change. The shift from script to print changed our intellectual and symbolic lives. The ease with which we could transmit our thoughts, share other’s ideas and co-operate together to create wholly new philosophies created a new consciousness; individualism. Historians now consider the printing press to be a key driving factor behind the significant cultural and religious transformations that subsequently swept Europe: the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.

The exponential growth of this new mass produced written word also demanded that its users accept uniformity. The written word had to, by necessity, become consistent and reliable. We developed a stable grammar, uniform spelling, and regular punctuation. Readers began to expect that they should consistently be able to interpret a writer’s abstract ideas. And so we come to today’s problem. How do we collectively manage our latest transformative communication technology: email?

 

Choosing Your Path

Make your subject line work for you. Write your subject line last to ensure it sums up or captures the essence of your email’s content.
Ask yourself:

  • Is my subject line relevant and unambiguous?
  • Does my subject line provide a clear context for my readers?

Follow all accepted writing conventions. Don’t let email’s simplicity deceive you. You are dealing with written text. Write in full words using fully punctuated, grammatically correct, complete sentences. Avoid acronyms.

Create a ‘top down’ structure. Business writing needs to be top heavy; put your most important information first. Structure your email in order of importance from most important to least important, from your reader’s point of view.

Use an opening address and don’t forget to sign off. Whether you use a relaxed, ‘Hi Kaitlyn…’ or the more formal, ‘Dear Ms Hohepa…’ will depend on who your reader is and the purpose of your email. When you finish, make sure your reader knows who you are by giving your name and affiliation as appropriate. Always remain respectful.

Keep it short. Emails are often read on mobile devices where they can appear even longer. If your email is going to exceed more than one desktop screen length, consider sending an attachment or use sub-headings to help your reader negotiate their way through your text. Keep your email paragraphs short, no more than four sentences.

Tighten your threads. For communication to be clear it must have a clear context. If your thread has gone beyond five emails you should consider:

  • cutting irrelevant conversations within the thread
  • re-writing a new subject line
  • picking up the phone.

Avoid graphics, headings and tables. Email text is based on HTML (hypertext mark-up language) your layout and formatting might not appear as you intended. Attach Word Documents or PDF’s instead.

 

Finally

Attributed to Mark Twain is the quote, “History doesn’t repeat, it echoes.” It’s a useful analogy for us to keep in mind when we consider the often maddening impact email has on our daily lives. However, we’ve negotiated the disruptive forces of new communication technologies before and, on balance, we’ve come out the better for it. We must also accept that language, the myriad ways we employ and manipulate it, and the means by which we communicate, is a glorious, constantly moving feast. Language is messy, organic, unpredictable, and continually evolving because we are. Our language is simply a reflection of us, its users.