In academia, professors are encouraged to write books, research, articles and to participate in seminars to build their reputation and gain attention for their respective institutions.  The cry is:  “Publish or Perish”  But out here in the real world, as you can see from the title, it may be just the opposite.  Publishing could be hazardous to your health.  Committing something to print, particularly in e-mail, could lead to unexpected and unfortunate circumstances. 

The first hazard is the sheer number of emails that we send and receive.  Few really command our undivided attention and often we write in haste, especially when catching up after a day or two out of the office.  When we are in a hurry we may say something that we don’t really mean or word our message in a manner that confuses rather than enlightens.  Despite our intent, a hastily composed message may get interpreted differently by various people.  And, as I have done, you may not thoroughly peruse the “To” or “cc” list before hitting “Send”.  OOPS!   Be particularly careful of who is in that pile labeled “Reply All”.  Read every message you write one last time before hitting the send button.  Does it really say what you intend it to?  Who will see it?  Assume everybody.  Forever.

We often write as an immediate reaction to a message or event.  It seems like the efficient and time saving approach.   But sometimes we let emotion get the best of us.   Think through your objective before writing.  Are you trying to communicate, gain consensus and advance the cause or just trying to settle a score? And by the way, brevity is helpful.  You concentrate your message and you save your recipients time.

E-mail for many of us is a constant barrage of messages ranging from trivial to urgent, often with attachments and sometimes with immediate deadlines for response.  Many of us report receiving 100, 150 or more each day.  And we all are guilty of multitasking, perhaps going through e-mail while on a conference call.  Yes, I’m talking to you.  And me.  Slow down just a bit and pay attention.

You should also realize that you do not own your email.  First, you are writing on a company computer/phone or other device using the company’s network.  Second, emails, once sent, never really go away.   Each recipient has a copy and if you sent it to a group that could be a dozen or maybe a hundred other people.  And further, each of them can forward it to anyone they choose or maybe to a whole bunch of people.  Think chain letter.  Months and years later there are still many copies.

The best solution?  Take a moment to compose your thoughts and then write clearly and with a bit less emotion, particularly if you are unhappy or frustrated.  Have an objective for each message or reply.  And ask yourself three questions:  “Would I say this, in these words, if I were standing in front of the recipient?”,  “Would I be pleased if my email were published on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times?” and  “Would I be OK if this email surfaced five years from now? Yes to all three?  OK, now hit send.



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