Communicate efficiently in world buried under e-mail

  • Article by: Stephen Wilbers
  • October 4, 2009 - 6:20 PM

Whenever I go away, I come back to piles of work. Not that I'm complaining. I treasure my time away. But sometimes the joy of having been away is diminished by the stress of catching up.

In the old days I would return to five piles, neatly arranged by my secretary: one of newspapers and other publications, one of phone messages written on little pink slips of paper and three of paper letters and memos carefully sorted according to their importance.

These days I have no secretary to sort my mail and take my telephone messages, and I don't need one. I receive almost no business mail, few phone calls and almost no paper letters or memos. Thankfully, I still receive a hard copy of my daily newspaper, though I fear one day that, too, will be gone.

What does await me is an endless queue of e-mail messages. Those messages request information from me, ask me to do things and inform me of things I need to know -- or at least things the sender thinks I need to know. Reading, sorting and deleting these messages all take time.

At least twice in the past five years I have declared e-mail bankruptcy, not by going to court but by sending a pasted message explaining as politely as I could why I was unable to respond individually to each message. Both times my message generated a flurry of responses. On occasion -- I'm embarrassed to admit this -- I delete messages without responding to them, a desperate remedy that fills me with guilt and remorse. I assure you my mother and father taught me good manners, though I sometimes forget them.

It's not that I don't enjoy hearing from readers, clients, colleagues, friends and family. It's that the collective burden of their messages is weighing me down. Reading and responding to them sometimes diverts me from more important matters. Rather than being liberated by technology, I feel enslaved by it.

What I need these days is not a secretary to sort my piles of paper, but an assistant to manage my electronic information flow. The time I spend reading and responding, however, is only half the equation. What about your time? How much time do I require of you and others?

For effective and efficient electronic communication, I offer six simple guidelines:

Make your subject heading specific.

Update your heading when the topic changes in subsequent exchanges.

Write clearly and get to the point.

Organize your message into paragraphs.

Don't write when it's more efficient to call or talk in person.

Don't copy your message to people who don't need to see it.

I welcome your response to this column, but if you choose to respond by e-mail, please provide a subject heading such as "Your column on electronic communication," rather than "Your column" or "Communication" or "You rock." I look forward (really) to hearing from you.

© 2018 Star Tribune