Mr. Wolfe Goes to Washington


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Communication may be our most important skill. It doesn't matter how fantastic or useful a design may be if we can't explain the idea to the people who have to build it. When we're dealing with construction documents, we know the value of the standards developed by CSI, and we acknowledge the value of the four Cs - clear, complete, concise, and correct. But when it comes to electronic communication, it's easy to forget that e-mail and discussion forums also benefit from clear, concise statements.

E-mail is one of the great communication innovations. Fast and easy to use, it allows us to send information to each other almost with hardly a thought. It is also one of the great communication curses of the modern world. Fast and easy to use, it allows us to inundate each other with endless chain letters, jokes, annoying messages, and forwarded mail.

In the good old days, when we wrote letters with pen and ink, or with a typewriter, we usually wrote to a single person. Writing to more than one person at a time was possible, but re-writing or reproducing a letter, addressing envelopes, affixing postage, and getting it all in the mail made it an uninviting chore.

With e-mail, we can respond immediately, and just a few clicks can send a message to several people. The "reply to all" feature makes it possible to respond to the sender and to everyone else who received a copy of the first message, and by adding a distribution list of your own, the message can be sent to people who weren't involved before.

Most of us have received jokes that have been forwarded countless times. Sometimes there are so many names of previous recipients that the original message is lost. I once received a joke that, printed out, would have run to more than a dozen pages, the payoff being a two-paragraph joke on the last page.

Jokes and chain letters are one thing, but business correspondence is entirely different. The purpose of serious mail is to convey important information. As long as we write to a single person, or a carefully selected group, all is well.

Unfortunately, pressing "reply to all" is so tempting that we often pass on information that is significant to only a few of the people that receive it. When this becomes common within a group, it is not unusual to receive copies of the same letter from several people, each of whom replied to all.

The recent e-mail discussion of the governance recommendation clearly illustrates the need for more thought when sending or responding to e-mail. The sad result of the enormous quantity of endlessly forwarded e-mail was that it discouraged many members from reading their e-mail, thereby negating its purpose. Just like junk mail in your snail-mail inbox, much of it went right into the garbage without being read.

When sending mass e-mail or responding to a message with several names in the "to" or "copy" fields:

  • Take the time to select recipients who are interested.

  • Check the previous distribution, and do not send to people who have already received the message.

  • If the subject of the original mail is something like "What's a good time to meet?" reply only to the sender.

  • If all you have to say is "I agree" think twice about how important that is to everyone else.

  • And please - don't use those cute signature blocks that include your entire life history and that clever company logo. Same thing goes for that lovely background image.

Better yet, post your comments to a discussion forum, and when you get e-mail about a posted subject, tell the person who sent it to use the forum. Using a forum will make your comments available to all, avoid confusion about who said what, and eliminate a lot of clutter from our mailboxes.

Finally, when writing that terribly important message that you simply can't wait to send, go ahead - get it all out. Then save it, set it aside, and read it again the next day. You might be surprised how often comments made in the heat of the moment don't sound quite so reasonable in the light of another day.

Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA
Institute Director, North Central Region, CSI

2007 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS, CCCA, 

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Material from CSI Chapter newsletters used with permission.