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Senior editor Deb McKinley worked with a group of colleagues from the University of Minnesota Communicators Forum to create guidelines to promote e-mail that's professional and effective.
Using e-mail professionally
By Dee Anne Bonebright
From Brief, April 20, 2005
It's no longer just a convenient way to communicate informally. For many people, e-mail is now part of how they do business--even formal business transactions. More and more people make job offers, submit resignations, and conduct business online.
"People are busy," says Susan Rafferty, lead consultant in the University's Office of Human Resources. "They use e-mail to expedite things where they may have used faxes or U.S. mail before. They'll send documents by e-mail and then follow up later with hard copy."
University departments are also using e-mail to communicate with prospective students, donors, and other important clients. E-mail from an address at umn.edu is considered official correspondence, says Matt Sumera, University Relations.
University of Minnesota Communicator's Forum (UMCF)
McKinley and the UMCF group created professional e-mail guidelines in fall 2004. The guidelines include information about deciding whether e-mail is the right communication tool, presenting the message effectively, and using appropriate e-mail etiquette. Find tips on content and format, plus Web links to more references on issues such as accessibility. See the Professional E-mail Guidelines.
"People ask about creating electronic letterhead, but our position is that it's already official," he says.
Yet many departments haven't considered the image they want to present and the ways that e-mail affects that image. That's what prompted Deb McKinley, a senior editor in Environmental Health Sciences, to initiate writing a set of professional e-mail guidelines. She had two key concerns.
"I wanted people to treat e-mail as professional communication," she says. "Some have the habit of treating it more casually, and it doesn't convey the right image. I would never be sloppy about spelling or subject headings in a written document, so why is it okay in e-mail? E-mail seems more transitory, but it's still presenting an image of the University."
McKinley also wanted to explore ways to use e-mail most effectively.
"With e-mail, the goal is to clearly let people know what you want them to do, and help them to do it easily," she explains. Bad habits, such as forwarding long messages or ignoring title lines, can get in the way.
McKinley worked with a group of colleagues in the University of Minnesota Communicators Forum (UMCF) to create the guidelines. Responses have been positive. People tell McKinley that the guidelines have caused them to change. Departments and individuals are beginning to develop better habits that will benefit the whole U community, she says.
Here are a few important tips.
- Tell people up front what you expect them to do with the message. You won't be there when the reader opens your message, so don't assume they'll know what to do with it. Is it background information for a meeting? Are they supposed to reply by next Monday? Is there an attachment that needs to be mailed by the 15th? "If there's something you want them to do, state it clearly," says McKinley. "Don't rely on implied messages."
- Edit forwarded messages. Don't forward a message that includes information the new reader won't need. "That's like sending someone a letter and including all the junk mail you got that day," says McKinley. Make sure the key points are easy to find by deleting excess information and cleaning up any forwarding marks inserted by previous e-mail programs. Add your comments and replies to the top of the message so that readers don't have to scroll all the way to the end to learn what the message is about.
- Use clear title lines. The title should tell the reader what the message is about and highlight key points. For example: Bad: >>>Subject: Fwd: Re: Meeting Better: April Staff Meeting Best: Staff Meeting, 4/15, 10:00-noon
- Be very careful with humor. Irony does not work well in an e-mail setting. Sumera frequently sees problems caused by misinterpreting messages that were meant to be funny or ironic. "It's best to be very careful with sending or forwarding these messages unless you have a good working relationship with the receiver," he says. "It's very difficult to communicate humor, especially out of context. Mark Twain could pull it off, but not many of us are that skilled." If you're not sure whether your reader will receive the message as intended, then don't send it.
Putting the guidelines to work in CCE
Continuing Education and Extension (CCE) is a unit that used the guidelines in a conscious way. Kay Cooper, assistant to the dean, says that CCE has been looking at e-mail communications over the past year and has held brown-bag sessions to learn about effective use of e-mail. Staff members have discussed e-mail in advisory group meetings and offered training for a new departmental e-mail system.
This winter CCE created a slightly modified version of the UMCF guidelines. The dean asked the leadership group to discuss the guidelines in unit staff meetings.
"Each unit is different, so we're not going to make college-wide requirements," says Cooper. "But it's important to think about it and have a plan."
E-mail can be a powerful tool to make business communications faster and more effective. But like any tool, it reflects the skill of the user. By taking time to think about why you're sending the message and what results you want to achieve, you'll be able to get better results for yourself, your correspondents, and the U.
Dee Anne Bonebright is the director of supervisory training in the Center for Human Resource Development, Office of Human Resources.