Two Tips For Effectively Using Email

A frequent complaint these days is the feeling of being overwhelmedwith information: We’re getting hundreds of emails, dozens of voicemails, dozens of phone calls, post it notes, feed updates,correspondence, thousands of bookmarks and sites we’ve visited thatwe know had good infromation but we just can’t find them again,pamphlets and brochures, and it goes on and on.

It gets to the point that it seems like an unmanagable,overwhelming mess.

Often it isn’t the tools or the medium, but rather the way that weuse it, that causes the problem. Email in particular is frequentlymisused, and gets maligned for being a productivity waste when it’sreally flawed usage that’s the problem. As such, here’s a couple ofemail tips from an avowed email lover.

  1. Give a concise, but detailed, subject line that accuratelyconveys exactly what the message is about. This is a huge issuewith email, with many apparently hoping to add a note of suspenseto their emails by giving vague or misleading subject lines (e.g.”Notes” or “Ideas” or “Feedback” or “Hrmmmm”, instead of “SQLServer Presentation Summary Notes” or “New Product Ideas for MobileBattery Market” or “Comments regarding Q1 2006 Finance Summary”).You should customize reply subject lines as well, adding specificsuffixes if your reply deals with particulars (e.g. “RE: LunchParty – Drink Menu” if you’re replying in specific about the drinkmenu”). Any email client worth its weight in electrons threadsemails by a hidden message ID, so you shouldn’t worry aboutfragmentation.

    Your subject line should be a critical piece of the communication,allowing the recipient to determine how to fit in theircommunications flow.

  2. Provide an “executive summary” for longer emails, comprised of10 or less sentences. It should accurately be a subset of thelarger message, minus technical details or discussion points thatmight not be applicable for all recipients. Everyone appreciatessuch summaries, and it can help fend off the anti-email crusaderswho discourage email to avoid the responsibility of readingthem.

flowers These practices primarilybenefit the recipients of your missives, however they do benefityou as well. You’ll have better organization of your sent items,for instance, not to mention that in the future you will go through your emails, amazedthat you were the author, trying to quickly figure out what each ofthem was about in the search for something in particular.

On the theme of efficient communications, I caught a post a fewdays back where the author detailed how they categorize their RSSfeeds into the “20% thatmatter” and the “80% that don’t”. This perplexed me, becauseif 80% don’t matter, then why subscribe to them in the first place?Is it some sort of “junk collection” of the internet kind, wherethere’s a feeling of accomplishment having more and more irrelevantinformation pouring in every day?

Personally I don’t use an RSS reader, and I subscribe to no one –I don’t need to know every random thought that goes through RobertScoble’s mind (personally I think most of his entries are noise,which is how I feel about most frequently updated blogs. There’s noway I want a little feed icon blinking every time some three linesnippet pours out), and even worthwhile writers like Joel Spolskyor Seth Godin don’t demand immediate attention. Instead, everycouple of days, or for some months, I browse around to all of thesites that I’m a fan of, quickly scanning past all of the floatsamfor something worth reading.

This isn’t to say that feed readers are bad: Like everything elseit’s the usage that really matters. Yet if people really, trulythink that anxiously watching countless blogs is critical to theirindustry or technical knowledge, they’re focused on entirely thewrong thing (unless they’re in the blog industry and they rely uponcommenting on other people’s comments).

Speaking of being focused on the wrong thing, while doing mybi-weekly dive through the sites, I caught a post by the esteemedErik Sink – WPFfor Laggards – where he discussed WPF – Windows PresentationFoundation. Going through various names and feature lists over theyears, this is a new way of developing for the Windows platform,and it will change how a lot of us build software. Is it importantto know, however (e.g. are Windows developers not up on WPF”laggards”?). Of course it isn’t, and in many ways details of itare just communications noise that distracts people from theincredible amount of knowledge they need to do their jobtoday.

When WPF is realized, eventually, sometime next year, and as itfinally makes its way into the tools that we use, it’ll be worthpaying attention to it. Otherwise there is little or no advantage– though often there’s a signficant time and focus cost — to jumpon the bandwagon before its time.