Ultimate 15-step email survival guide

We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

The late 1990s saw a revolution in office communications. Email, we were told, meant we'd never again have to trouble ourselves with face-to-face meetings and conversations - we could simply email our colleagues and business contacts instead.

It soon became clear, however, that something was missing from this de-personalised, electronic means of communication.

When speaking to someone in person, you pick up signals from their language, facial and verbal expressions, vocal intonation, body language, eye contact, posture, smell (not always a good thing) and a host of other factors.

But email is a different kettle of fish. By removing these visual and audio signs, you starve the recipient of vital clues to your meaning. It's such an informal and disposable medium that few of us devote the time and care needed for real clarity. And, unlike established non-visual modes of communication such as the telephone and the letter, email doesn't have well-known conventions and etiquette to guide participants through the maze of meaning.

On email, everything boils down to your ability to write an effective message. So you'd better get it right - with our help.

We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

Breeding confusion

The problem is that most of us simply aren't familiar enough with the written word to articulate our message clearly and efficiently. Email might be quick, cheap and accessible by all, but messages can leave recipients unable to understand exactly what we're trying to say.

Misunderstanding breeds confusion, a bigger workload and a huge amount of dissatisfaction at work - with colleagues and business life in general. Estimates suggest that over five trillion business email messages were sent in 2006 - that's about 15 billion per day, or 175,000 every second. Forget death by PowerPoint presentation; some days, it can feel as though you're drowning in email.

Companies enthusiastically adopted email and its success took everybody by surprise. But has email gone too far? Intel recently announced email-free Fridays, encouraging staff to talk and meet rather than sending each other messages.

Other companies have gone so far as to ban emails written to colleagues in the same building - now staff have to go and talk to them, assuming they remember what they look like.

We are, in effect, a largely unskilled and untrained email workforce. For most of us, the usual office defences of training and operating protocols have yet to catch up.

Personality, personality, personality

One thing email does is reinforce personality types; they pour out of the emails we write. There are four basic personalities:

End gamers are focused operators, seeking to achieve a goal or objective by whatever means necessary. They don't like excessive detail or complex procedures and aren't careful about people management.

Detail lovers like goals and objectives to be thoroughly explained and won't be happy to proceed otherwise. They want to gather all the available data and conduct a thorough analysis before reaching any conclusion.

Polite players avoid disruption or disagreement and want to get on well with the world around them. In pursuit of this goal they may mask their disagreement or resentment, which can cause problems later.

Image seekers like to be clear and open about objectives. They will broadcast their findings and welcome recognition, particularly from those in senior positions.

It's imperative that you understand the personality types of your email recipients. The group they fall into determines the type of message you should write.

Just as important is understanding the characteristics of the people who email you. That way you can understand what their message means and what they expect of you.

Regardless of the personality type you fall into, you'll get best results if you learn to adapt your writing style to meet that of your recipients.

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PC Advisor staff

PC Advisor (UK)
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