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Electronic Communication 101

published March 05, 2007

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Nearly every minute of the day, we need to effectively communicate with superiors, colleagues, professional contacts, and clients regarding a wide range of matters in order to successfully perform our jobs. While there are situations that warrant speaking face-to-face, sending a letter or fax, or using the telephone, the reality is that the electronic exchange of information is unavoidable in this day and age.
Electronic Communication 101

Email messaging and the most recent communication trend to arrive in the workplace, instant messaging (the technology that relays information in real-time), require solid communication skills, good business etiquette, and some basic common sense. So before you use your index finger to click "send," be sure to first utilize the following electronic-communication rules of thumb:

1) Who's it from? (And what's it about?)

In terms of how your email system is set up, it is crucial that the name corresponding to the email address is correctly spelled out and that each proper noun is capitalized. Keep in mind that this is the first impression you will make with your email. If your name is typed out in all lower-case letters, your email could be perceived as spam and promptly deleted or, worse yet, viewed critically and deemed unprofessional.

Since the subject heading of the email is the second item the recipient will likely view and has the potential to determine when your recipient will open and read your message (if ever), a concise heading that effectively summarizes the main point of your email is also imperative.

A well-executed subject line is brief (generally no longer than six words) and easy to scan yet is sufficiently descriptive to capture the essence of your message. This ensures that the reader will clearly understand what item of business you are addressing and that, thus, he or she will be more apt to respond quickly. For any subsequent email conversation concerning your message, it's also a good idea to update the heading to reflect any changes in your topic of discussion.

When you relay key case information such as applicable regulations, additional facts, or critical deadlines, the recipient (for instance, your absentminded boss) will be able to easily locate your email and review/retrieve that important information weeks or months after you've sent it if you've written an effective heading. Looking good in front of the boss is yet another reason for taking a few extra seconds to craft the perfect heading.

At the closing of your email (particularly if it is being sent externally), the signature field should also thoroughly and accurately indicate who you are (your full name, job title, and the name of the company you work for) and ways of contacting you (email address, telephone number, fax number, mailing address, and website location, as applicable). That way, the recipient will be sure to know who you are and will have the added convenience of a built-in Rolodex at the bottom of the page for responding to correspondence quickly.

With the various options at our disposal for utilizing simple but visually striking graphics or fonts, many firms view their email systems much as they would sets of polished-looking business cards. As any good advertiser will tell you, it's not just books we judge by their covers but companies, as well. While nothing substitutes for strong legal work, small details do have the capacity to impress clients and garner the trust and faith that you and your firm seek from them; paying attention to these kinds of details can even determine whether a million-dollar client signs your retainer agreement or that of the firm next door.

2) Who's it addressed to? (And why was it sent to me?)

When sending an email, it's easy to go overboard by including people on your recipient list who don't really need to be there. The various sending options, including the CC (carbon copy) option, BCC (blind carbon copy) option, and "reply to all" option, can be helpful and, when used correctly, have the capacity to accentuate electronic communication.

All too frequently, however, these tools are misused or abused, and instead of appearing open and all-embracing by including the entire firm or department on your message's recipient list, you could very well be annoying those you email and developing a reputation as an inbox clogger—the kind of emailer who lacks discretion or solid judgment. Using the BCC option additionally has the potential to make you appear either extremely savvy or extremely sneaky to recipients, so before quickly hitting "send," carefully consider one more time whether you've included (or excluded) the right people.

3) It's not only what you say but also how you say it.

Good judgment, likewise, should be applied to the text of the message itself. While email writing, in general, is more casual than print, that doesn't mean the tone of your message isn't important. In fact, since there are no facial expressions to attach to your words, you are effectively relaying feelings and emotions to your recipients using only the words you choose for your email. That said, it is frequently challenging to create just the right tone—one that conveys what you'd want to convey in a face-to-face meeting: a respectful, pleasant demeanor.

There are certain subtleties with regard to style, such as using all capitals or numerous exclamation points, that, to you, may seem like good ways to show you are upbeat and excited. However, to your recipient, these stylistic choices could very well convey anger, rudeness, or a lack of control, as they are frequently interpreted as yelling.

When it comes to "emoticons"—those creative ways we use colons and parentheses to create text faces to represent our own visages—it is recommended that you first evaluate how well you know the recipient to avoid appearing juvenile and unable to express yourself using words. After all, good writing skills reflect on your ability to think clearly. Your tone and words should convey a cool, calm, and collected professionalism—keep them friendly, not frantic.

Being respectful and pleasant also requires that you address the recipient properly. Don't assume, for example, that everyone you email prefers being called by his or her first name. If you have never met the person before, it's a good idea to err on the side of formality by using Mr., Ms., or Dr., as appropriate. If the individual replies by signing his or her first name, that's a good indication that your subsequent messages can use his or her first name.

Next, be concise. Break it down if you need to. The truth is people are busy and don't have the time to wade through lengthy or disorganized narratives full of "just-one-more-things." A massive block of text serves as an obstacle to your idea, not a facilitator, and the reader's immediate reaction will be to skim through your message, increasing the likelihood that he or she will miss some key information.

Instead of relying on wordy explanations, ensure your main ideas are effectively communicated by using short and to-the-point paragraphs. Subheadings and bullet points are also effective methods to help you organize your thoughts and words. Remember, solid electronic communication isn't like composing lyrical poetry, and your readers aren't likely to linger over your every word. The goal is to effectively and professionally communicate your ideas employing the rules of brevity and clarity.

Finally, proper grammar and spelling are crucial. Be sure to utilize spell check and review your message once, twice, or even three times before sending it. Just like any good business writing, electronic communication requires clarity, organization, and a polite tone. Remember, the emails you send reflect who you are as a person—your levels of professionalism, computer savvy, and education.

Emails you send to individuals and organizations outside your place of employment are also reflections of the firm or organization you work for. In other words, electronic communication in the workplace is not just a "quick way to answer a question." It reflects much more. Like nearly everything faced by paralegals throughout the workday, professional electronic communication is truly "all about the details."