How not to be read …

Eileen posed a question in her blog recently.

"with everyone over the age of 6 using IM for social related chat, and interaction, just how do we get the message out about corporate Instant Messaging as a useful business productivity tool "

Simple: IM is more productive than e-mail. Or put another way more and more e-mail is a waste of time. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I'm Canada en-route to Seattle for a Microsoft event, one of the event dinners has a competion for simple equations which tell people something about messaging. Mine is V = 1 / (r*B)

And its more complex form is V = ( 1+log(S) ) / (r*B)

The expected Value (V) of a message to a recipient is inversely proportional to the number of recipients (r) and the size in Bytes (B). The value of the mail increases with the log of the number of sentences (S) in it. A mail with 10 sentences has more "content" value than a message with one, but not 10 times more. A message has some overhead, so increasing from one sentence to two doesn't double the byte count. Net: Short, targeted messages are valuable; we know that from Instant messages and SMS texts. But more and more people tell me much of their mail is Big, vague, widely distributed, and of low value. To borrow from Marx "E-mail contains the seeds of its own destruction". That doesn't mean it is doomed, but if it dies off it will because of things which were part of it. Voice mail now means we don't have any confidence of reaching someone by phone, and the result has many people don't bother with the phone any more. We could be going that way with mail - unless people develop strategies for using mail and other kinds of communication (voice and IM)

With this in mind, and since it is Friday, which means a little levity, I thought I would post an old piece on how not to have your mail read. The top 5 ways are, in ascending order.

5. Tag your mail as pointless by putting “FYI” (Filling Your Inbox ) or “Please read”. If you forward stuff to the whole office with no explanation beyond "FYI" they will ask themselves why you keeping reminding them you’re still there. "Please read" tells the recipients “This message won't look like a good use of your time but I need you to read it” see also #2.

4. Send people lots of messages that they are unlikely to find useful Several kinds of people exhibit this, besides the FYI bunny. For example the rounder-up - here are "10 links you might like to visit", and the urban believer "Sign their petition complaining about what Tango did to this Welsh town," (it's a viral advert - quite a good parody of a Sony one). For Pity's sake, when a message asks you to forward, it check it on a search engine. And the Big Boss "I hope you will all join me in congratulating John Q. Doe III on his promotion to head up our operations in Timbuktu. I will tell you when we have filled his former position as chief assistant to the assistant chief of legumetrics [See foot note ]" A friend who gets these most days said: "None of us know John, or our operation in Timbuktu. Once, just once, I wish everyone would reply to the chief and to John saying, 'Yeah, well done mate'. Clearing thousands of those e-mails would stop this practice." When you multiply the time these messages take by the number of people in his company they waste the equivalent time to one person's whole working life each week.

3. Save up slightly interesting small items up to make a 5,000 word newsletter.I don't think I'm the only person who looks at each mail asking "can I delete this ?". Short term memory lasts about 7 seconds: that's how long you have to convince readers your message is worth reading. They won't trawl through thousands of words, even if you make them look pretty or include a photo. If you have lots of things to say use RSS so people can skim read and pick out the ones which ARE interesting.

2 Ignore your readers' needs / WishesBreak people's outlook rules by sending to a distribution list using Bcc. Use fixed width HTML which doesn't fit in the Outlook 2003 / 2007 reading pane. Such HTML is probably unreadable on a mobile device, text in graphics certainly is. Want to annoy and frustrate a mobile user ? Put the content in an attachment instead of the message body of a mail. (Our corporate Travel agents send flight details as an attached PDF - what good is that to me when I'm trying to check them on my phone ?) Or provide a link to something inaccessible from outside the corporate network.

1 Be hard to read.Use long words. Use abbreviations only the inner circle know. Use complex terms instead of simple ones. (Or should I say prefer the use of expressions with a high complexity factor ... ). Make them read through a lot of explanation before they get to what it is you want to tell them. Everyone who writes for big audiences should read this piece of Jakob Nielsen's

[Updated with some typos fixed]

Skip to main content