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Saying It Well in Email

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Link-Up Digital

Email has been around forever, it seems. The first working email system was created before the Internet in 1965 to connect users at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first popular email system for connecting corporate users across different locations was cc:Mail in the 1980s.

Every new technology brings its own conventions, and many of the same things we accept as the norm with email today were first used back then. Still, questions about what is considered acceptable to do in email and how to best do it are still regularly debated online.

Two main qualities distinguish email from most other forms of communication, which many people are aware of: speed and versatility. One quality that email shares with some other forms of communication, which many people aren't aware of, is retention--emails stick around. One last quality of email that also forms the basis of how to best use it, which many people forget, is that it is in fact a form of communication and should therefore communicate.

Because email is such a convenient way to reach a lot of people, people tend to write lots of emails, more than they should, and forward even more emails that were sent to them by others. As an email recipient, you can go postal keeping up with your incoming messages.

Probably the most overlooked email time-savers are filters and folders. Most popular email programs let you automatically filter messages, for instance, from your boss or important clients into a folder called Urgent. Once you set this up, whenever you fire up your email program, going to this folder first ensures you don't miss or aren't late with something important.

Email may be fast, but it's not always secure or reliable. Web-based or "cloud" services such as DataMotion ( help ensure the privacy of email, which is useful when sending important business documents. Another solution serving this purpose is Symantec's PGP Desktop Email ( ). If you don't use such services and want to make sure someone received an important email, ask for an email confirmation or follow up with a phone call.

Even though the vast majority of emails are read only by their intended recipients, don't assume just because people delete an email that it's gone forever. As with files on your hard drive, when you delete an email, it's not really gone. It can be retrieved, among other ways, from backups months or even years later.

By law public companies are required to retain email. Courts sometimes require the presentation of old emails when they relate to a criminal matter or civil lawsuit. If it can be shown that you deliberately deleted emails or their backups to obstruct a federal investigation, you could get hit with a fine or even prison.

Email is versatile, though this versatility can be limited. You can attach photos, music, and other files to emails to send them to others, but many Internet service providers limit the size of these attachments. Web-based services can overcome this problem, including YouSendIt ( and Symantec's WhaleMail (

Like any kind of communication, email can help make you look good--or bad. People often let their hair down more with email than with other forms of writing. One good rule of thumb in an organizational setting is to follow the internal culture regarding casualness with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and so on.

Keep in mind that you're not doing yourself any favors if, in trying to save time by using all lowercase, running sentences together, and spelling words any which way, you make it more time-consuming for recipients to understand what you're trying to say.

Here are quick tips for communicating efficiently though email:

  • Use descriptive, informative subject lines.
  • Keep messages, including material quoted from previous emails, short, and place your most important information first to make sure it's read.
  • Be careful about potentially offensive content and tone in an email, which can easily be forwarded to a third party. Better to be safe than sorry with jokes and politeness.
  • Copy only necessary people when responding to a group email.
  • With every email, before you send, double-check the To:, Cc:, and Bcc: fields in the email's header. You want to ensure that the person or people receiving your message are those you want to receive it.
  • Pay attention to openings and closings. "Hello" may be a better opening than "Hi" or "Dear." "Best," "Thanks," "Sincerely," and "Regards" can all work as closings, depending.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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