Email is so prevalent in modern life that it is largely taken for granted, but that doesn’t mean it should be underestimated. Each email you send is a document that represents you and your business.
Not-so Empty Rhetoric
In its relatively brief history (compared to writing on stone walls, clay tablets, animal skins, tree bark and paper), email has gone from a toy of the technocrat to the one of the most prevalent forms of communication on the planet.
Look at the heading of a standard email, and you’ll see it’s already been formatted into a address, and a subject — a holdover from the written memo format. In a memorandum, writing is expected to be concise, while greetings and closings are perfunctory or nonexistent. In terms of length, Emails range from one liners with questionable grammar and spelling to full on missives with salutations and all the niceties preserved from the letter format. Most emails fall somewhere closer to the former. That’s not a bad thing, according to many experts.
It’s Greek to Me
Go back a few thousand years before e-mail was dreamt of, speakers and writers in the city states of Greece were practicing their arts based on several agreed-upon characteristics, collectively known as rhetoric.
Pathos How does the document appeal to or engage the audience? What do you want your reader to think about you? This can be slightly different for every client, but keep in mind that each email is a document that represents you and your business.
Ethos How does the document convey credibility/character (of the sender)?
Logos How does the document convey information to the audience? Sometimes, email is too easy: it’s all to easy to forget that once an email is sent, there’s no getting it back (assuming it’s been sent to a valid destination.)
These terms are still used today to describe the intended effects a communication has on its audience. Communication pundit Kenneth Burke summarized the modern use of the term rhetoric as “The use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation.“1 Although it often carries a negative connotation in today’s parlance, rhetoric is an ancient art form that predates written documents. At its core, it compels the communicator to think of the audience first. Even as late as the 19th century in the United States, it was often a politician’s public speaking ability (and the writing behind it) that could make or break a campaign. Very few people were able to hear the Gettysburg Address in person, of course, but it made headlines in its day and continues to ripple through the national consciousness.
The Big Ripple
Emails have the ability to be propagated as quickly as the push of a button. With that great power should come great responsibility, or accountability. Thinking before acting is the key phrase here. And whether that’s dashing off a quick reminder of an upcoming session, or sending blog-length keeping in touch letters, whether intentional or, say, “Dyslexics of the world, untie!“ lower your credibility with your audience.
To Emote or not?
Written communication depends mostly on what is written, not on what is between the lines. So subtle modulations in pitch and tone in speaking don’t translate well into typed messages. Emoticons have evolved from their typographical agglomerations to full-fledged, stand alone icons that can be dropped into a text from many what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) HTML editors.
Joining the fray in the past few years have been generation after generation of small handheld devices that bring their own peculiarities into the communicative mix. It’s a two-way street. Small, handheld devices have seen the proliferation of shorthand codes such as LOL, BTW, and others that have crept into email use. So before dashing off a quick email to your client or clients, consider that not everyone considers such characters or codes acceptable.2 But should they be used at all?
That issue, along with some recommended email do’s and don’ts, will be discussed in part 2.
1. Burke, Kenneth. “Definition of Man.“ The Hudson Review 16 4 (1963/1964): 491-514
2. Krohn, F. (2004). A Generational Approach to Using Emoticons as Nonverbal Communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 34 (4), 321-328 The Impacts of Emoticons on Message Interpretation in Computer-Mediated Communication Robb, P. (2008) E-tiquette. Office Pro, 68 (1), 24-27