The Smart Way to Use E-Mail

The Smart Way to Use E-Mail


The Smart Way to Use E-Mail

In Today’s Workplace

Presented By:

Dr. Lester Hoffman

Applied Technology Institute



“The effective use of technology never happens just by accident.”

– Dr. Lester Hoffman

“The blizzard of workplace electronic mail now exceeds [a trillion] a year. This rising storm of communication creates an exponentially increasing possibility of miscommunication and “malcommunication” by and among employees.”

– Littler, Mendelson law firm


E-mail etiquette and beyond – 25 rules for courtesy, clarity, and coherence to make your message stand out

Be alert to the many pitfalls of using e-mail and voice-mail in the electronic workplace, and know techniques for avoiding them

Know when it’s best to use e-mail and when to use another communication channel, such as face-to-face meeting, telephone, fax, paper memo, etc. -- and just why each may be best in different situations

Know why writing subject lines that are brief, to-the-point, and not clichés helps get your emails read

Be able to use more than 25 strategies for managing the e-mail overload in your in-box, and how to reduce the overload

Understand who to send an e-mail to (and who not to), and how not to over-use “cc:”

Know what sort of messages to never, ever, EVER send via e-mail

Understand the basic structure of a successful e-mail, to help your reader understand the message quickly and easily, and act on your request

Know why it’s imperative to proofread every e-mail before hitting “SEND”

Be able to follow guidelines for using e-mail to communicate successfully in a team environment

Understand the importance of tone and diplomacy in e-mails

How to apply the principles of Customer Service to your e-mails and voice mails

Know how to increase productivity by preventing both voicemail tag AND e-mail tag

Be able to use 15 practical tips for taking less time to respond to your e-mails

About the Instructor

Dr. Lester Hoffman, has taught workshops on enhancing written communications and how to use e-mail productively for over 2 dozen government agencies and private sector clients, including: NOAA, The Pentagon, US Census Bureau, US Navy, Dept of Veterans Affairs, National Cancer Institute, NIH, US Public Health Service, USDA, Xerox, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan/Chase, Lockheed-Martin, Prudential Securities, Avon Cosmetics, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, FedEx, and Aetna Industries.

Dr. Hoffman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he studied, taught, and did research in Cognitive Psychology, Adult Learning Theory, and Instructional Systems Design. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Help! I’m Drowning in E-Mail: 101 Tricks, Tips, and Techniques for Handling E-Mail Overload(to be published, October, 2004), and the best-selling book, Moving beyond Bias: Bias-Free Communication Strategies in Today’s Workplace.



•Manage your own mailing lists effectively and efficiently – by creating new lists based on specific interests you guarantee less e-clutter and more interested recipients

--Revise and prune your lists periodically

•Use cc: efficiently – and effectively; also, be careful about bcc:

•Manage your incoming e-mail efficiently – don't send replies back in a robot-like manner – don't respond to a message that does not truly require a response

•Avoid playing e-mail tag by writing clear subject lines and making your requests/needs understood so the reader doesn't have to e-mail back asking you to clarify what should have been clear to begin with!

•Avoid unnecessary forwarding to others of messages received by you

•Use e-mail only for business-related messages (with rare exceptions)

•When there's no need for your recipients to respond to your message unless they have an issue with what you said, tell them that explicitly (you can be sure they’ll be grateful for having one less e-mail to write)


1.Is the communication synchronous or asynchronous:

Synchronous: Communication occurs in “real time”; there is a give-and-take between the parties involved, an immediacy of response; allows participants to modify or tailor their messages based on the response they receive, whether verbal or non-verbal

Asynchronous: Communication is essentially one-way; a response may be expected or given, but it's delayed and does not take place in the immediacy of the moment, in “real time”

2.How is meaning conveyed (verbally, non-verbally):

Verbal: Meaning is conveyed through words exclusively

Non-verbal—visual:Meaning is conveyed through “body language,” gestures, facial expressions, etc.

Non-verbal—auditory:Meaning is conveyed through voice intonation and inflection, pauses, etc.


Copyright, 2002-2004, Dr. Lester Hoffman


This chart classifies some different communication channels based on the above categories.

/ Asynchronous? / Verbal / Non-Verbal--
Body Language / Non-Verbal
Voice Qualities
Paper Letter
or Memo / No / Yes / Yes / N / N
/ No / Yes / Yes / No / No
Instant Messaging
/ [Nearly] / No / Yes / No / No
/ No / No / Yes / No / No
/ Yes / No / Yes / Yes / Yes
/ Yes / No / Yes / No / Yes
Voice Mail
/ No / Yes / Yes / No / Yes
/ No / Yes / No / No / No


There Are Many Ways To Communicate Today
Paper letter or memo (formal/informal; handwritten note; standard format); can be sent via:
Interoffice mail
Postal delivery
Overnight or same-day delivery service/courier
Hand delivery (“sneaker network”)
Electronic messaging:
E-mail (via company Intranet or public Internet, such as AOL, Hotmail, etc.)
Instant messaging
Electronic bulletin board -- company Intranet
On-line discussion and conferencing via groupware (such as Lotus Notes)
Face-to-face conversation
Speech, presentation, or briefing (to one person or to a group)
Meeting or conference
Video conference
E-meeting [with video]
Webcasting (1-way or 2-way)
Oral only:
Telephone -- private conversation or conference call
E-meeting [without video]
Voice mail
Note:Many hybrids exist, e.g., e-mail pagers.

In some situations, it can be difficult to choose whether you are best off using e-mail, voice mail, fax, a standard form memo, a letterhead memo, a face-to-face meeting, real-time phone call, etc.

Don’t just choose e-mail automatically, without thinking about what’s the best communication medium with this specific person in this specific situation. Your choice will be easier if you ask yourself these key questions:

•What is the situation? what are “the politics”? the “personalities”?

•What’s the subject of the e-mail? what’s the level of “sensitivity”? is it “touchy” or “political”?

•What’s the relationship between yourself and the recipient?

•What are the recipient’s communication preferences? what are their travel patterns? (e

•What your manager's preferences are

•How likely using e-mail or voice mail is to lead to "e-mail tag" or phone tag

•The level of sensitivity – how "political" or "touchy" the subject is

•Whether a paper trail is needed – or whether you wish there to NOT be a paper trail

•The complexity of the information

•Whether the back-up documentation for your message does or doesn't exist in electronic form

•The urgency that they get the message NOW

•Whether real-time "give-and-take" is needed

•What the risk of misunderstanding is – and what the cost would be

•How important it is that the message's tone NOT be misunderstood

•Whether there are graphics or other "visual matter" that needs to be seen in its actual form (may require faxing, but faxing can also blur some delicate visuals)

•Whether the recipient has the software needed to open an attachment you want to send


Things to Think About Before Selecting a Communication Channel

•What is your purpose in sending the message? What objective do you want to accomplish? What response are you looking for from the recipient?

•What type of subject or content will be in the message?

-- Is it confidential/sensitive/relating to trade secrets/highly political? Or is it neutral/ factual/purely informational?

-- Is it “good news” or “bad news?”

-- Is the message complex or simple?

-- Does it require a formality in style/tone or is an informal approach acceptable/more appropriate?

-- Does the subject require a short or a long message?

-- Will there be attachments to the message itself?

•The audience -- to whom are you sending the message?

-- Is it going to one person only, being cc:’d to one or more other people, being sent to a distribution list? (will there be any blind cc:’s? is that okay?)

-- What is your relationship to recipient? are they your supervisor? subordinate? peer?

-- How well do you know the person? How much have you communicated in the past? What channel of communication have you used?

-- Where is the recipient located? within physical proximity? same or different time zone? (this may be a critical issue)

-- How mobile is the recipient? can they access e-mail when in transit? (do they?)

-- What are your recipient’s information needs? does he/she prefer details or overview?

-- How much background information (if any) does this recipient need?


Things to Think About Before Selecting a Communication Channel

•The audience -- to whom are you sending the message?

-- What are their communication habits or preferences? (do they regularly check for phone messages, but not e-mail)? what’s the “communication culture” of the group?

-- Is the message going to a mixed audience (people with diverse information needs)?

-- Is there a need for confirmation the message has been received? will they be able to provide such conformation? will you be able to receive it? why important?

-- What is the recipient’s native language? Is English their first or second language?

•What are the time factors?

-- How urgent is message? when must it be received by? when is a response needed?

-- For time-sensitive messages, what are recipient’s habits/preferences re communication channels (e.g., does the person check voice mail, but not e-mail, regularly?)

•Does the message require a “paper trail”? (or do you wish to avoid one?)

-- Do you, as the sender, need to retain an electronic version of the message?

-- Does the recipient need to retain a record?

-- Do you wish to avoid the existence of an electronic “paper trail” on the organization’s network?


When we talk to someone Face-to-Face (F2F), the words we use carry only a portion of the burden of communication – facial expressions, gestures, inflections, play a critical role in transmitting our message.

However, in an e-mail, the words alone carry the entire burden.

A friendly jibe in conversation may become an insult in e-mail because the reader cannot see the grin or the wink – or catch the slight change in tone of voice that accompanied the remark.



When E-Mail May NOT Be the Best Choice…

And Face-to-Face May Be Best

•In situations where give and take with the other person is essential, e.g., when negotiating

•When conducting interviews, debriefing, focus groups, etc.

•When trying to solve a complex problem that requires input from the other party(ies) and their hearing your response to or comments on their input

•When there is a high risk of misunderstanding of your content -- and the cost of misunderstanding may be high

•When the message includes information that is highly confidential, for eyes only

•For any message that would cause embarrassment or problems if it were read by someone other than the person(s) for whom it was intended

•When delivering criticism

•When delivering praise that requires a more formal setting to recognize the achievement

•When giving performance feedback or a performance appraisal

•When there is a high risk that the tone of your message may be misunderstood

•When you need to convey nuances of feelings to sell your point or get your message across

•For time-sensitive messages where you are not sure that the person will be able to retrieve the e-mail message in a timely manner

•When the recipient has a definite preference not to use e-mail for any but the most routine matters

•For any communication where a face-to-face context is needed for the cultural comfort of the other person(s)


1.Spell Check It!

2.Proofread/Edit It! - Make Necessary Changes

3.Check to Make Sure That Your E-Mail Meets All These Standards:

Clear In Purpose - "On Target" Throughout

Centered On the Reader - Know Your Audience!

Courteous/Concerned - Professional In Tone – No Anger, No Sarcasm – Be Wary of Humor with Those You Don’t Know Well

Clearly Written - Simple, Direct, Plain Language

Complete - All the Info. Needed - Right Level of Depth – Right Ideas Emphasized

Concise - No Wordiness or Repetition of Thoughts

Cohesive - Organized in a Logical Sequence - Flows From Start to Finish – No Rambling – No Tangents

Correct - In Grammar, Punctuation, Word Choice, Spelling - Accurate Details

Chunked Appropriately- Short Sentences/Paragraphs – Relevant Structure – Bullet Lists When Needed

Composed Attractively - Appealing Layout - White Space - Is It Scannable?

Culturally Aware – Bias-Free Language – Conscious of the Cultural Expectations of the Reader

Note:Print out & do final proofing in hard copy of any e-mail that is long, complex, or very crucial – just as you would with a memo in hard copy!


51% of workers in a recent survey said the tone of their e-mails is often misperceived in a negative way!

It is hard to convey subtleties in e-mail, and people say things in e-mails that they’d never say in writing or voicemail, let alone in person!

What do they say? Angry things, dumb things, careless things thoughtless things.

And the consequences have been disastrous: lost customers, damaged work relationships, ruined reputations, destruction of one’s professional image, lost jobs, even lawsuits!

All for the sake of venting or back-stabbing or other negative emotions!

BEFORE PRESSING “SEND,” ask yourself, would it be worth it?


•Be careful with humor in e-mails – and with anger and other emotions!

•Don't try to be funny unless you are really certainthat allyour readers will get the joke – that includes people who may not be on your intended list but might see a copy anyway – including the one person who will be offended by it!

•Avoid irony or sarcasm. Somebody will take it straight and get upset. People can brood for days over an innocently intended sentence or two.

•As for anger, when you get angry in person you leave nothing behind other than the memory of your anger. When you put it in writing, you leave a permanent record. You may be sorry about that – after you cool down!

•Remember that there are subtleties about anger and other upsets that get expressed when one speaks to a person face-to-face – and most people cannot convey these in an e-mail! [perhaps no one can – the medium seems inhospitable to subtlety]

•Angry e-mails can sometimes have their place. A good rule is to write it when you're angry, but don't send it until the next day, when you have cooled off enough to reflect on the consequences.

•Synchronous communication (telephone, face-to-face) at least allows the person you're upset at to respond right then and there – and possibly de-fuse your upset – before it "runs away with you" and develops a life of its own – which is where it really gets dangerous!


•Never type in all caps – except for an occasional use of it for a word or two for critical emphasis

•But also: Never type without caps – that is, never ignore initial caps to start a sentence, a name, and the like – all lower case looks unprofessional and illiterate

•Always use proper punctuation – no run on sentences, rambling free association, etc.

•Avoid embarrassing typo’s – use the spell checker ALL THE TIME! - make it the default setting

•Use white space and other principles of “chunking” to make it easier for readers to skim – short sentences, short paragraphs, bullet lists

•Provide the reader with a brief preview of the contents of all messages longer than a single screen – the visible screen area MUST grab the reader enough to keep him/her reading the rest of the message; many readers routinely click “Next Message” at the bottom of a screen

•Always consider whether a long message might be broken into a brief, 1-screen long summary or preview, plus an accompanying Attachment

•Be very careful to distinguish your perceptions/judgments from the facts you're writing about

•Use priority markings judiciously – don't cry wolf by marking every message "Urgent!" or “Important”


  1. Give a timely response - or at least an acknowledgement - within a matter of hours but absolutely within 24 hours (some say: by early the next business day)
  1. Many people expect an e-mail as a reply to an e-mail ... but is that always the best way to facilitate communication or get then intended result?
  1. If out of office, may want to have an "out of office" return message with a reach #, alternative contact person, or the like – AND when you expect to be back
  1. How much of the original message should you include when you reply?
  1. What if the message is part of a longer correspondence? When should you include the entire “thread” and when should you not? Some organizations have cultural protocols on matters like this…learn what they are!
  1. Will recipient know immediately which segment you're replying to? How?
  1. If it's not self-evident, say what the issue is explicitly!

-- or, excerpt or highlight the key segment you're responding to (color)