Article, December 2006
E-Mail: Be Less Annoying
Everyone -- including Bill Gates -- can use e-mail more efficiently.
And learn how not to do really dumb things.
by Steve Bass, PC World; Author, PC Annoyances
I've come to the conclusion that everyone needs to take a test before being able to use e-mail. No, I'm serious. You have to take an e-mail test. If you pass, you get an e-mail license. Proudly hang it on the wall. Screw up--send lots of messages with blank subject lines, say--and your license is pulled. You go on probation and attend mandatory remedial e-mail training. Why am I being so hardnosed? I have a laundry list of ways people drive me wild with e-mail. I wrote about a few in "Get Relief From Annoying E-Mail," my July, 2006 "Hassle-Free PC" column: http://www.pcworld.com/howto/article/0,aid,125767,tk,nl_sbxhow,00.asp But I ran out of room in the print column, so here are some more tips, including how to stop being obnoxious with your e-mail.
To Whom Am I Speaking?
Sometimes I have absolutely no idea who's sending me an e-mail, and this is a problem. I mean, I'll say something to another guy that I wouldn't dream of uttering to a lady my mother's age. [Sorry, Mom.]
* Don't share. If you and your live-in (spouse, significant other, whatever) use the same e-mail address, stop it. Extra e-mail addresses are free and consolidating e-mails into one mailbox is confusing the dickens out of me because I never know who I'm writing to.
* Use a sig line. Make life easier for me: Add a signature line with your name and e-mail address using the hot-linked firstname.lastname@example.org format. It's easier to reply just to you if your e-mail was sent to many people; it's also great for when I forward your e-mail--the new recipient doesn't have to cut and paste your address.
* Use your real name. Don't get me wrong, I love your email@example.com. The problem is, I haven't a clue who you are. Be a champ and add your real name in the signature line. And a favor? Don't use initials.
Do I Need to Read This Right Now?
Look, I'm a very busy man (or so I tell my wife and editor), and I get tons of e-mail every day. I need to do e-mail triage--you know, scanning the inbox for the hottest messages and reading them first. But honestly, I can't do this with most e-mail I get. So here's what I recommend:
* The subject is... Tell me, clearly and briefly, what your message is about in the subject line. I delete all messages with vague subjects--Hi, Hello, or worse, an empty subject line (oh, do I hate that!). And make sure you don't trigger my spam filter by using all capital letters, exclamation points, and words you typically see in junk e-mail, like "free," "spam," "mortgage," or "Viagra."
* Exec summary. Give me a one- or a two-sentence overview at the start of your e-mail. "I have a complicated issue," you might start out, "involving a Dell, memory cards, and SP2. If you have time to help, I've provided details below.'
* Save time. Use [NM] or [EOM] (they stand for "no message" or "end of message") in the subject line as a shorthand way of responding with a simple "thank you" or an acknowledgement. This helps reduce the number of e-mails I need to open; many of the people at PC World use the trick and it's increased everyone's productivity.
And Your Point Is?
* Once I actually open an e-mail, I need to get the point quickly so I can reply to the sender if necessary, then move on to the next one. But lots of the missives I get are, how to say it?, a mess.
* Use paragraphs. Obvious, right? Nope. I get e-mails with one long paragraph the length of the Gettysburg Address. Break it up into three or four smaller ones. By the way, my limit is three or four paragraphs; after that I start dozing. [Editor's note: I noticed.] And send a test message to a buddy to make sure your e-mail program isn't removing paragraph returns.
* By the numbers. If you have more than one question or point, number them. It makes replying a whole lot easier if I can refer to the numbers.
* Subject shorthand. When you reply or forward an e-mail, it's helpful if you stick one or two descriptive words in front of the original subject so the recipient has an idea of what's in store. For instance, I use tags such as "Update," "Confirmation," or "Really Dumb."
Think I'm done kvetching? Nope, no such luck.
* Attachment don'ts. Don't attach anything executable--period. If on the off chance I've asked you to send a program, stick it into a zipped file.
* Keep it private. Don't reply to a mailing list with "great idea" or "I agree." Reply privately instead. Select a small part of the original message for context's sake.
* Stay plain, Jane. Avoid fancy formatting, gaudy colors, and flowery backgrounds. Two reasons: first, what's cool on your monitor looks like hell on mine; and second, that extra coding increases the download time for folks with slower connections.
* Dear [InsertName]. Private note to PR flacks: If you can't use mail merge properly, don't.
Here are some e-mail gaffes that drive readers crazy.
"Stop sending chain e-mails to me--no matter what the cause (little Timmy needs your old Christmas cards to live, canola oil is poison, tell someone you love them, whatever...). While I find them annoying in general, they are even worse when they are the only time you contact me. I'd rather be dropped from your little list. Think for a minute: Do I ever send you such drivel, or respond to it?" --Chuck
"Always use the subject line. I automatically delete any e-mail without a subject line." --Linda
"Check spellings. Don't mix subjects in one e-mail." --Arvind
"Phone home. For conversations that require significant two-way dialog and do not require documenting, use a phone or IM. Do not send an e-mail asking me to lunch in 30 minutes." --Jack
"Stop using those fancy script fonts! They are near impossible to read. And please, no more purple, orange, green font colors. Its an e-mail, not a work of art!" --Mark
Now, on to some mail list etiquette. If you're new to mail lists, or even if you're not, you can learn how to make your messages easier to read, more useful, and definitely less annoying to others.
When Replying to Messages
1. Don't hit Reply All for every message. Avoid responses the entire list won't find useful. For instance, don't reply to the entire list with "thanks," "good idea," or "I'll try it!" Instead, reply directly to the person who just helped you. Unfortunately, on many lists it's easy to inadvertently reply to everyone instead of an individual. Take a sec and check the return address before hitting Send. The sender's e-mail address is usually near the top of the message.
Another tip: Insert OFFLIST at the start of your subject line when replying to an individual. That way the recipient will know you're not replying to the entire list.
2. Remove the extra stuff. When replying, it takes seconds to snip extraneous junk and leave only essential portions of the previous message. There's rarely a need to repeat the entire thread, and doing so often discourages people from reading your message.
No matter what you do, get rid of the stuff that's automatically inserted at the bottom of every message--the "how to unsubscribe" junk--that clutters up every message.
3. Keep the subject line short. If you're viewing messages in digest form, the subject is something lengthy, like, "[Computing] Digest 07-13-06, 16 messages." When you reply to a message, it's essential (mandatory, really) that you change the subject to the message topic. Then remove everything from the digest message except the topic and your response.
4. Restrain yourself. It's not necessary to weigh in on every topic, especially on very busy lists. Consider limiting yourself to one or two messages a day.
When Starting a New Thread
1. Brevity is the soul of wit. Just as with e-mail, consider tackling just one topic or issue per message, and keep your messages short. Long messages (more than, say, three or four paragraphs) are difficult to read; long paragraphs are equally difficult to plow through.
2. Use an informative signature line. Keep your signature line short, say, two or three lines. Usually your name is adequate, though some lists (such as one I'm on about camper vans) want a city and state. The point is to avoid sticking in anything nonessential.
3. Stay on topic. If it's a computing list, send messages about computing; ditto for a cooking list, or any other special-interest group. Most importantly, avoid political messages and jokes.
This column originally appeared in Bass's PC World newsletter, Tips and Tweaks. Copyright 2006 Steve Bass and PC World. Read Bass's blog at http://snurl.com/BassBlog and his previous newsletters and print columns at: http://snipurl.com/tweaks. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://snurl.com/homeoffice.
Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World, a 23 year veteran of PIBMUG, and a founding member of APCUG. Heís also the author of PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things about Your Personal Computer, OíReilly Press. Itís available on Amazon at dirt cheap prices. http://snurl.com/annoyancesClick here to return to top