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Choosing Email

We need to stop thinking of email as some strange beast. Email is written communication - nothing more, nothing less. The primary difference between email and any other form of communication comes down to one thing: email doesn't require a human delivery agent. That's it. That's the difference.

Are you writing a short note, memo, or report? We used to use paper; now we use email. The only difference is in the delivery mechanism.

Do you need to Cc: multiple recipients? That's been standard in business communication for years. The only difference is in the delivery mechanism.

I have read, too many times, in too many places, authoritative lists of the following "Don'ts":

  • Don't use email for formal communication.
  • Don't use email for discussions.
  • Don't use email for anything long or complicated.
  • Email should be short, succinct, and concise. (Some of the experts add "thorough" in the same set of requirements. Few people excel at balancing short and concise with thorough.)
I believe the list above to be incorrect and inappropriate. Recommendations of this type imply that email is a new and special of communication. It's not.

The real guideline is simple:

If written communication is necessary, important, or convenient, you can use email.

If you would have written a memo, a letter, or a report twenty years ago, you should write that some memo, letter, or report today. The only difference is that, today, you don't need to print out twenty copies and place them in physical mail slots. (Of course, you don't have to use email. Paper is still available. If you prefer, you can always write something up in an editor program, print it out, and distribute via some physical distribution agent. )

Slowly, I've begun to see more "experts" recognize that email represents a different distribution mechanism, not a new mode of communication.. For example,while Laura Stack, "The Productivity Pro", still advocates against email for formal communication and discussion, she does recommend that email can (and should) be used for distributing lengthy, complex information, for legal purposes / hard copy, and whenever there is a requirement for a record.

In the workplace, I believe the times that a record is not required are rare. If the communication relates to your job, I believe a record should always be made.


For a slightly different opinion on email versus other forms of written communication, see A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood. Although I don't agree that electronic communication is fundamentally different from paper-based communication, I do agree with many of Kaitlin's recommendations for how to tailor your message to email.

March 22, 2007 in category Language Arts, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Permalink

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