Today, there are so many ways to conduct important meetings, conversations and negotiations. You can meet with the person face-to-face, talk over the phone, conduct business via e-mail, use videoconferencing and more. They are all beneficial methods for communicating, yet they also all have their drawbacks. E-mail, in particular, seems to generate strong reactions from proponents and opponents.
I still get many questions from people in the work world about when and how to use e-mail effectively. In general, the research indicates that for important negotiations or conversations, it is best to meet face-to-face. For example, asking your boss for a raise via e-mail is probably not the best strategy. Your guideline should be: The more important and complex the issue, and the more important the relationship, the more you might want to consider using a face-to-face meeting rather than phone or e-mail. Even using the phone is more desirable in these situations than relying on e-mail.
Recently, someone asked me about using e-mail to tell the boss about leaving the job (after eight years on the job). While it might be easier to send the e-mail rather than facing the boss, having such a meeting shows professional courtesy. Plus, we need to remember that it's a much smaller world than we think. Our former bosses can often play a role in our future employment — via references. Leaving a firm on a positive, professional note is important for your future.
The use of e-mail also seems to stimulate lots of discussion about what is appropriate. People have many pet peeves about e-mails, such as really long messages, those in all capital letters, overly complex information via e-mail, "urgent" messages that aren't, copies of messages that they don't really need to get. The list goes on and on.
To address these pet peeves and the many more that are out there, here are some tips for using e-mail:
• At the start and end of your e-mail, add relationship-building content, such as "Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for your flexibility in working with me on these points," or "We have been making great progress together." This is important because you don't have the nonverbal expressions and tones of voice that you have in face-to-face meetings. Treat the e-mail exchange as if you were meeting with the person.
• Use e-mail as a way to stop and think about something ("I will get back to you with an e-mail about that") instead of feeling that you have to automatically respond in depth immediately. E-mail is good if you need time to think between responses.
• Make sure you already have trust established with the other side before using e-mail as a communication forum. Establish rapport with the other party by exchanging pictures, background information or personal phone calls first.
• Make messages clear and concise. Better to exchange several shorter e-mails than a few longer ones. Most people who get really long e-mails tell me they just don't read them.
• Watch the use of capital letters, color and symbols. What emotions are you trying to convey and do you really want to communicate those emotions?
• Be timely. Let people know when you will get back to them with a response.
• Watch your temper. Make it pass the "light-of-day test": Would it be okay if seen by your mother/boss/the world? Is it suitable? Be sure you are okay if it is printed out and shared — because it might be.
• Don't deliver negative feedback via e-mail — better to deliver it face-to-face. Remember that people should be treated as human beings — respect that. In addition, anything you send can be printed out and sent to anyone else. Would you want this?
• Avoid using cute shortcuts or acronyms (e.g., "I am here 4 u") in professional exchanges.
• Make sure you have a signature line so people know who is sending the e-mail.
• Check the grammar, punctuation and spelling. This sends a message about your level of professionalism.