Email: Friend or Foe?

Working from home

A few years ago my niece, who was nine at the time, asked me what I did for work. I talked a bit about the world of communication consulting. Her eyes glazed over. Perplexed she asked ‘But what do you actually do?’

I buckled under the scrutiny and replied, flustered, ‘I do emails’. And there it was. A decade-long career boiled down to electronic mail. And do you know what? It’s true. In a typical working week I spend a lot of time reading emails, scanning emails, replying to emails, deleting emails, deriding emails, filing emails, forwarding emails and drafting emails.  I do emails. I’m an email executive. I’m a CEE.


So two weeks ago, with the sad passing of Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of one of the most popular communication tools, it got me thinking again about the trusty email – friend or foe?

Email certainly revolutionised how we exchange information and pass messages but, are we better off for them? In lots of ways, of course, we are. Things are faster, flatter and more efficient but my overriding sense is that in a quest for speed we mistake emailing for communicating.  

The FYI, the cc, the bcc. They are lazy communication habits. We’re emailing colleagues sitting meters away from us, we’re covering our behinds with a cc and we’re kidding ourselves that because we’ve emailed somebody, they should understand something, care about something or indeed do something differently.

Avoiding an overreliance on email isn’t a new topic but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep talking about it.  It’s fit for lots of things but not for everything. 


Emails should:

1. Be short.  And there are very few exceptions to this rule. People don’t read long emails. They scan emails, they select the most important content and they move on.

2. Have brilliant subject matters. Think about the subject matter as your headline. It really matters. Apart from the sender, it’s the first thing the reader sees and it will help them decide whether to open the email or not.

3. Have the most important information first. Get the call to action early. Very few people will be reading the last few lines so don’t save the best until last.

4. Be as tailored as possible. Don’t cc too many people or you’ll lose impact. People aren’t sure if the emails are for them and what they need to do as a result.

5. Be more than an FYI. Ok, if you’re completely sure that somebody will know why you’ve sent it, fine. But why not write one line that makes it crystal clear which part of the email or attachment somebody needs to read and absorb. And, if they don’t need to read or absorb anything, then they really don’t need the email.