We’re used to computers zapping data back and forth with (mostly) perfect integrity. When you send a email, there’s no doubt that it will reach your intended recipient with all your crafty sentences completely intact.
But!, even though your computers are good at transferring the information without loosing any, your recipient probably isn’t. Humans don’t remember everything they read, if they read the entire contents of your email in the first place. Being an effective communicator over email means treating it as a noisy channel; a lossy medium. You have to assume that parts of your message won’t get through. Things that aren’t emphasized won’t get remembered; things at the end of a long message won’t get read. Some of your recipients will be so overloaded with email, or neglect it to such an extent that you will be lucky if they open it at all.
So what’s a sender to do? You can employ some strategies analogous to how computers transmit error-free messages across noisy channels.
- Structure your messages so that they degrade gracefully—put the most critical information early in the message and emphasize it. Put the punchline in the subjectline or as the first line of the message. If you’re making more than one point in your email, make sure they are self contained: don’t leave a critical detail that changes the meaning of the message for the end.
- Keep things as brief as you can. This will make it less likely that particularly busy recipients will put off reading your email until later, then forget about it.
- Redundancy. Put an executive summary at the top of your email (preferred) or a punchy conclusion at the bottom. Or, as much as I hate to admit it, you can send reminder emails.
Email is a powerful medium because it’s so easy to send stuff down the pipes, but this is a double edged sword. If you want your message to be received error-free, you’ll need to put in some effort in making it well crafted. And if your message is very important, resist the urge to put “IMPORTANT” in the subject line, or add that annoying red exclamation mark of “High Priority.” Consider redundancy in channels as well—use the bulletin board, intranet, RSS feeds, Twitter, or even a good old fashioned phone tree to get the word out. If you don’t know the recipient and their email habits well, then prepare for the worst.