how to send e-mail without burning bridges or closing doors
(a People- & Planet-Friendly Portal & Guide)
|"E-mail is so easy to
use" ...that we often use it
without being aware of its limitations. It is easy for
your message to be ineffective, misunderstood, or even
harmful. Messages can be missed, ignored, lost, or
forgotten. And unless you are careful in your wording and
etiquette, it's easy to be inconsiderate or
to be taken as inconsiderate without
knowing it. Below are a few thoughts on how to send
e-mail without creating misunderstandings, clogging up
people's e-mail boxes, or otherwise causing trouble.
(1) Avoid sending attachments or HTML e-mail
What's wrong with sending attachments?
Many people ignore attachments simply because of the extra time and effort involved in saving and opening them. Many lists and e-groups strip off the attachment or bounce the message entirely. In addition, attachments are slower to download, waste disk space, and overload e-mail accounts causing current and future messages to be rejected. They are notorious for carrying computer viruses (whether or not you have virus protection software). Also, they exclude anyone who does not have the required (corporate) software, and the knowledge of how to save files and find them in different folders on their hard disk. By sending attachments you are supporting the very corporatization/ monopolization that you may be trying to resist in your other efforts.
More reasons not to send Microsoft Word attachments: www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html
When is an attachment appropriate?
Sending an attachment to multiple recipients beyond your own immediate office is rarely appropriate. But, if all of your recipients have the required software, and the time & ability to process the file... if you and your recipients have up-to-date virus protection software and recent backups of your files... if you know that the file is not larger than your recipients will be happy with... and if the graphics or formatting are critical to your message then sending an attachment might be appropriate. How large is large? I would say that if any of your recipients have older computers or live in small towns or rural areas, anything over 30K is getting rather big, at least for an unsolicited message. Unsolicited attachments of over 100K are increasingly questionable. This applies to all kinds of messages and attached files, including Word, WordPerfect, PDF, and plain text.
If you must send an attachment
If you must send an attachment, be sure to summarize the key details (what, when, where, how, why) in the body of your e-mail message (which should be plain text). And don't forget to include a subject line that accurately describes what it's about. If you don't take these steps people are much more likely to miss or ignore your message.
What are the alternatives?
The next section explains how to send plain text e-mail and/or create a webpage or downloadable file.
(2) Send Plain Text e-mail
The preferred approach is to send plain text, also known as "unformatted" or "ASCII" text. No attachments; no HTML; no "rich text"; no "MIME". Plain text is fast, effective, accessible to anyone who has an e-mail account, and can even look quite good, if done correctly.
How to write plain text e-mail using Word,
Wordpad, or Notepad
How to set your e-mail software to send only
How to disable HTML in a few popular e-mail
How to convert an existing Word document to
How to change the font of incoming
mail in Outlook 97/98/2000
(2b) Create a webpage or downloadable file
Another option is to put your document on the web, preferably as HTML (if HTML is not possible consider plain text, or if necessary PDF or Word). This allows you to keep the original formatting, or format it as desired. It saves you the trouble of converting it to plain text. It also largely eliminates the problem of size, as your readers can download it at their option, and at a time convenient for them.
The process of uploading a document to the web can be very easy. Creating a webpage can be somewhat more difficult, depending on how complex the formatting is, and what web design software you are using. In some cases it is as easy as basic word processing.
Once your document is on the web, you can send a short, simple, plain text e-mail announcing, describing or excerpting from the document, and providing a link to the complete document on the web.
Free website space
(3) Write a good subject line
Your subject line should clearly and concisely describe what you are talking about. If being broadcast (e.g. sent to a list), the subject line should be explicit enough for all possible recipients including people who may not recognize your e-mail address, nor be familiar with the background, context, or your organization itself. Many people look no further than the subject line (especially those of us who receive hundreds of messages a day).
The first forty characters of your subject line is the most that you can depend on; anything after that could be cut off in transit. So try to put the most important keywords in the leftmost portion of the subject line. Use point form; use abbreviations if necessary, but make sure it is still understandable to your intended recipient(s) including possible newcomers or forwards.
Bad: important notice
Bad: can you help out? want
to join our club?
Bad: Hi Susan, how would you
like to go to lunch somewhere on Friday?
Don't try to be cool or sophisticated in your subject line keep it clear and concise.
(4) Make it readable & understandable
Here are a few pointers on how to make the body of your message more effective, readable and pleasant without needing to using proprietary formats or attachments.
Include a one or two-sentence summary at the top of your message.
If your message is long or complex, include a numbered table of contents, and all-caps titles for each section, separated by horizontal lines. This can also help you organize your thoughts.
Include background information. Especially if you're sending to a list, don't make any assumptions about your readers. You never know how many potentially interested people might read your message, but lack familiarity with the issue or the recent discussion. If possible, give some context, explain buzzwords, and avoid acronyms. Consider including a brief backgrounder and/or providing links & contact information (see next section). If most of the recipients already know the background, put it at the end of the message, or provide a link to a webpage where the background and/or message archives can be found.
Message Formatting & Layout
Ever get a message that was garbled or very hard to read because every second line was only a word or two long? Try to limit each line of text to sixty chars or less by pressing enter after every ten words or so.
Small paragraphs separated by blank lines are much more readable than a long, run-on piece.
Sections can be separated with horizontal lines (use any character you like to draw a line of 20 to 60 characters (e.g. ------, ===, **** or ~~~~ ).
Do not try to format, indent, or centre your text, unless you know how to do this judiciously, using only plain text. No bolding, italics, fonts, etc. What looks good in your e-mail software can look terrible in another. To add emphasis to a title or keyword, use capitals and consider putting it on a separate line.
Use capitals judiciously (e.g. for titles or keywords only). "All caps" is hard to read, annoying, and is perceived as shouting.
More plain text e-mail formatting tips: http://topfloor.com/pr/email/smplch/ch9.htm
(5) Include contact info
It can be a good idea to include your phone number at the bottom of every message you send. This can be done by typing it in each time, or by setting up a "signature" in your e-mail software. Of course, there are times when you might decide not to do this, for example a young woman who is e-mailing a stranger.
If you have a website or webpage, be sure to mention it! Your webpage can also be added to your signature, to save you the trouble of having to type it in each time. Always type "http://" (to the left of the "www", if any) so that people who are using other kinds of e-mail software will be able to click on the link.
If appropriate, also include your fax number and mailing address. Don't forget to include your country as part of your address, and your area code as part of your phone number... you never know how far your message will go. If you don't want to include a full mailing address, consider indicating just your city and country.
(6) Mention the source & give credit
If you are sending a something that came from a webpage, be sure to include the complete address ("URL") of the webpage. Simply copy and paste it from the top of your web browser into your e-mail message. Another way to do this is to "right click" on the link that brought you to that page, choose "copy shortcut", and then paste it into your message. Make sure it includes the "http://" at the beginning of the address (if it doesn't, add it, to the left of the "www").
If you're forwarding something that came from an e-mail list, it can be helpful if you mention the homepage or subscription instructions for that list. Or if it came from another individual, include the original "From" line at the top of the message.
If you got something from a newspaper or other media, try to include the name of the paper, date, page number, original title of the article, etc. This makes it much easier for others to find more information. It also makes it more credible.
Don't forget to give credit it's only fair to include the author's name, organization, website and e-mail address. However, if you think the author might prefer anonymity (especially if it was a private message), it's a good idea to ask him or her for permission.
(7) Don't spread viruses
Viruses are not a joke. They can destroy your documents, violate your privacy, crash your computer, and waste a terrible amount of time. While some viruses are just a nuisance, others can be devastating. Also, if you do get a virus, you are risking infecting others with whom you communicate, possibly with tragic results.
Virus-protection software is only a band-aid. Some basic self-protection steps are needed as well. Prevention is much better than the cure if there is a cure. Damaged files often cannot be recovered; the effects of violated security often cannot be rolled back.
One thing you can do to avoid viruses is not to send or open attachments, unless absolutely necessary. For a "Virus Self-Defence Primer", including "seven steps to virus-free computing, see: www.planetfriendly.net/virustips.html
(8) Don't "spam" people
"Spam" is unsolicited e-mail. Even well-intentioned e-mail can be considered spam by someone who, for whatever reason, isn't interested in your message. It can be a real nuisance to the recipient and sometimes provokes angry responses. This can include being banned from a list, e-group, e-mail account, or internet service provider.
The basic rule: avoid sending unsolicited, unexpected e-mail to multiple recipients. This applies whether you are using CC's, BCC's, a list, an e-group, or any other method. The issue becomes even more sensitive if you send a commercial message (offering or even hinting at a product or service for sale); a large message; an attachment; and/or multiple messages over time.
How to protect yourself from spam?
Avoid risky activities such as listing your e-mail
address in publicly available directories; providing your
main e-mail address to unscrupulous websites; or replying
to spam & scams (don't even try to unsubscribe). But
for most of us, sooner or later we will start getting
junk mail. Often the easiest thing to do is "just
click delete" and try to not let it
stress you. For more information on spam
and how to prevent it, see:
What's wrong with anti-spam legislation, filtering and blocking: www.eff.org/Spam_cybersquatting_abuse/Spamming/position_on_junk_email.html
(9) Reply to sender or to list?
If you are participating in an e-mail discussion such as an "e-group", how you reply to a message is important. Always think carefully about whether you want your reply to go only to the original sender, or to everyone on the list. If you just click on "reply", it will probably go to the list (assuming the original message came from the list). The bottom line is whatever is in the "To" field of your message; this determines where your message will go. If the "To" is the address of the list/group, it will go to the whole group. This is usually best, because it keeps everyone in the loop. But if your response was intended to be private, make sure the "To" is that person's e-mail address.
(10) E-mail software & service providers
The choices you make for e-mail software and ISP can make a big difference in how pleasant and successful your e-mail experience will be. Changing your ISP and e-mail address can be a real nuisance, and you can lose contact with people, no matter how loudly you announce the change. It's also somewhat difficult to change software, once you are familiar with your current program. So it's a good idea to try to know the options and select wisely, thereby minimizing the need to change in the future. Things to consider: cost; reliability; features; permanency & control; and the ability to grow with you.
e-mail accounts (free, but slower
and less flexible in some respects)
Access Providers (also known as
"service providers" or "ISP's")
For more information on e-mail terminology, software & services also (13), below.
(11) Support software diversity
"Use non-Microsoft products. Even if you use Windows as your basic operating system, you can still find better alternatives to the Microsoft-produced default software programs you probably use" (from www.salon.com/tech/col/rose/2001/11/29/microsoft_resistance/index1.html). See web-based e-mail (above) for alternatives to Hotmail. See e-mail software (above) for alternatives to Microsoft Outlook or Express.
Why avoid Microsoft? www.vcnet.com/bms/ , www.around.com/microsoft.html , http://msbc.simplenet.com/super/ , http://weblog.flora.ca/article.php3?story_id=110 , www.computergripes.com/Outlook.Viruses.html , www.google.com/search?q=outlook+viruses (for alternatives, see e-mail software and web-based e-mail, above)
Why avoid AOL? www.aolwatch.org www.aolwatch.org/aolwatch27.htm www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/7911/no-aol.html www.mediachannel.org/ownership/ (for alternatives, see e-mail software and web-based e-mail, above)
Corporate Dirt Archives www.corporations.org/corplist.html#computers
Why is Open Source
better than Corporate sofware?
(12) Choose your list/e-group host carefully
If your group grows beyond a handful of people, e-mailing people manually soon becomes awkward and problematic. There are many services available that will host an e-mail list for you. Some of these are free (usually advertising based), while others charge a monthly fee.
Many people are choosing "Yahoo! Groups" (formerly "e-groups") because it is currently free of charge, is relatively easy to set up, and has some good features. But could we be helping Yahoo to become a monopoly? And what would happen if this large corporation were to abuse its powers? Here are some potential risks:
(1) Censorship, e.g. blocking of messages, blocking of specific users, deletion of archived messages, and/or banning of entire groups. I have heard a few allegations, but I am not aware of any concrete evidence at this time. Yet in these days of media and website concentration and vanishing civil liberties censorship could become a real problem.
(2) Fee hikes, e.g. changing from free to a fee-based service; or dramatically increasing existing price structures.
(3) Privacy violation, e.g. requiring subscribers to provide personal information including names and valid postal/zip codes.
(4) Disruptive advertising, e.g. larger ads at the top of messages; larger, interrupting ads in the archives.
(5) Host failure who knows? Even a large service could "crash", or even go bankrupt. And if we're all in the same boat...
Of course, these considerations also apply to other services. But if we all become dependent on any one corporation, we also become much more vulnerable.
How to make your e-mail list & website less vulnerable
(1) Frequently download the list of e-mail addresses that are currently subscribed. This list is a highly valuable asset of your group. By keeping your own copy, if your list host shuts down, or shuts you down, you can continue to communicate. You can can always find another host. Do not use any service that does not let you, the list owner, download the list of e-mail addresses. There should be a convenient command or menu option to do this. Keep the downloaded list on your computer for safekeeping. Download it again at least every month. To respect the privacy of the people on the list, it might be best not to keep it on a shared or public computer. Note that Yahoo currently does have a convenient download feature, as does Majordomo (the "who" command) and Mailman.
(2) The list/e-group moderator should have a separate e-mail address one that is with a different service than the list/e-group host. For example, if your list is at Yahoo! Groups, it might be best not to have your e-mail address @yahoo. That way if the list ever closes down, your e-mail account is likely to still be functioning, and peole can still get in touch with you
(3) As soon as you can afford it, get your own domain for your site (e.g. www.example.com, as opposed to www.somefreehost.com/~example). Getting your own domain allows you to have more permanent, non-ISP-dependent e-mail addresses (e.g. email@example.com, as opposed to firstname.lastname@example.org. This gives much more permanence and portability for your site and your e-mail addresses. Your domain and e-mail addresses will soon become an important asset of your group. Changing them is a real nuisance, and can result in losing contact with thousands of interested web surfers and e-mailers.
Once you have your own domain, promote it as the place for people to link to, not the list host-provided homepage (e.g. yahoogroups/group/example). Your site, in turn, can link to the list homepage or archives. This would make it much easier for you to switch list hosts in the future. If you don't have your own domain, you might want to provide links to both your site and your list homepage on all your literature; that way if one changes, people will still be able to find you.
(4) Consider other list/e-group
hosts. There are many other services that host
e-mail lists/groups. Some of these are "free"
(i.e. advertising based), while others charge a monthly
or annual fee. http://dmoz.org/Computers/Internet/Mailing_Lists/Hosting_Companies/
Service Providers. In Canada, there are several
non-commercial organizations that host e-mail lists and
websites. Here are three of which I'm aware. They tend to
be more affordable than commercial hosts, without making
the compromises involved in dealing with an
advertising-based service or a large corporation.
However, they might lack some of the bells & whistles
of commercial hosts, or involve a greater learning curve
for the list administrator or website designer. And you
have to get your "dial up" service (ISP)
elsewhere (see above).
(5) Secure your archives: The archives of your list/e-group are also likely to become a valuable asset. Existing member can use them for reference; newcomers can read them to get oriented. I believe that free list hosts generally do not provide any feature to download the archives. If you ever have to switch hosts, you lose the archives. For this reason, you might want to look further into various archival options, and possibly archive your list at two different locations. Ask around, speak to your website host, try www.mail-archive.com .
(6) If your list is large or otherwise valuable, it is a good idea to have at least two moderators with full "permissions". That way if one moderator takes ill, the other can administer the list.
(7) If possible, keep a phone & "snail mail" list as well as an e-mail list. How to organize a phone tree: www.nwf.org/action/howtos/howphont.html
(13) More e-mail tips & resources
Effective e-mail communications &
Loosely related links
(14) Remember the telephone?
Sometimes more can be accomplished in one telephone call than a hundred e-mail messages.
Especially if dealing with a complex, touchy, or time-sensitive matter, you might want to consider the telephone. It is more interactive, easier to get action or commitment, and usually less prone to misunderstanding. E-mail can then be used to complement the telephone to help keep everyone "in the loop", or to spread the message to a broader audience.
With e-mail, you can never be sure that the recipient has seen and/or read your message (let alone understood it). Some people are diligent with their e-mail, others much more casual. Some are simply overwhelmed. The message could be lost in transit, the recipient could be away from his/her e-mail, or any number of other problems could arise. A phone call makes sure you connect.
How to organize a phone tree: www.nwf.org/action/howtos/howphont.html
Fax, "snail-mail", and face-to-face meetings should also be considered.
Please tell them
you saw it at Planetfriendly.net
DISCLAIMER: There is no warranty, express or implied, as to the accuracy, reliability, utility or completeness of this information.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Peter Blanchard. All rights reserved. This copyright protects Peter's right to future publication of his work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this document (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission. Please keep this copyright notice with it. Readers are invited to visit the original document: www.planetfriendly.net/emailtips.html
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