Sunday, July 29, 2007

E-mail Sucks!

E-mail is absolutely an awful way to communicate with people. Orion, who works with me at Terracotta, and I joke about this all the time. More lost information, mistakes, fights and miscommunication can be attributed to e-mail than almost any other cause I can think of. Here are a few of the problems with email communication that I’ve noticed over the years:

1. It is almost impossible to properly convey emotion in e-mail (so don't try).
2. Most people only skim e-mails because they get so damn many of them
3. E-mail is slow and problematic for conversations
4. E-mail is permanent.


Here are some rules that I try (and fail sometimes) to follow.

1. Never try to express anything but the simplest of emotions via e-mail. You can't see the persons face, or even make judgments based on communication pauses or tone. So don't send emotion in e-mail.
2. Don't send e-mail if you are angry. (Alex miller pointed out that it is often helpful to write the angry e-mail but not send it. It's a good way to vent). Always make your e-mail twice as positive and/or emotionless as you think you need to. As they say on dragnet: Just the facts ma’am.
3. Don't assume that your e-mail was read. How many times have you heard, "But I sent an e-mail." Doesn't mean squat. Check in with people on chat, drop by, or call and make sure that they got/understood your e-mail. If you didn't get an ack (geek for response), you should assume that they didn't get it. Let me say it again. Don't ever defend yourself with "I sent an e-mail"
4. If you want to have a conversation, use a synchronous communication mechanism like chat, irc, talk in person or on the phone. E-mail is strictly good for relaying facts (and not even very good for that because they get lost in the ton of other e-mails you have. Try a wiki for facts).
5. If you send a dumb e-mail be assured that the receiving person has passed it around to a few friends to get a laugh or opinion. It is a permanent record of your stupidity (kind of like this blog is for me). So don't say anything in e-mail that you don't want to see on the cover of the NY times.

I must admit that I learned some of the above the hard way. I assume most people have received an e-mail that made their blood boil. You’re just dying to write up a response outlining what a jerk someone is. Well don't do it!

The thing to keep in mind is that there are a million ways to get yourself into trouble with email, but you almost never get yourself into trouble by NOT sending one.


Anonymous said...

You're right. Email is horrible but it's also the preferred way of communication for him if it's done right. My favorite part: respond when you want to and when you're comfortable writing back.

Instant Messaging is worse, it's like somebody jumping in your office every two seconds.

Taylor said...

Great post! I couldn't agree more.

My rule of thumb - if you ever catch yourself writing more than two paragraphs, step away from the keyboard. You've almost certainly violated one of the rules Steve mentions here (you're pissed so you're flaming, you're putting WAY too much information into the email that no one will ever read etc.)

Timothy McIntyre said...

Interesting post. I think the public's general frustration with e-mail proliferation stems from the fact that, sadly, not many people can write well. If an email isn't grammatically correct, or is loaded with slang phrases and pointless emoticons, the reader is invariably confused.

Anonymous said...

Presentation is everything.

Like any other communication medium, it's how you present your message. A meeting is just as useless as an email if you don't capture the attendee's attention early on and keep it.

My favorite approach for business communication is to provide an executive summary or "Why this matters to you" (1 to 3 short sentence) at the beginning of a long email so those who don't care are able to know up front and skip it. Those who care are enticed to read on.

I still try to keep it crisp and to the point, but some points require longer explanations.

Never email when angry is a very, very, very, very good rule.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with email. If you do it right, it works great and is very effective. It does not "suck."

Many of the same "problems" you mention for email are true of face-to-face communication.

I've had plenty of in-person conversations that resulted in misunderstandings. I've also had a ton of long, drawn-out useless rambling conversations that would have been completely unnecessary if the person had just sent an email.

Timothy McIntyre said...

Great NY Times article on this topic: