Email Charter

TED Curator Chris Anderson suggests that we help curb the proliferation of emails by subscribing to a Charter that he and fellow TEDer Jane Wulf have devised. He argues that in some sense we have all joined spammers in contributing to the modern “tragedy of the Commons” that our summed-up bad behaviours have produced. You’ll get a much better idea of what he means by reading the actual Charter, set out below. (It’s available as plain text and as a PDF, also, in case you want to pass it around the office — not by email.)

    1. Respect Recipients’ Time
    This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

    2. Short or Slow is not Rude
    Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s OK if replies take a while coming and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don’t take it personally. We just want our lives back!

    3. Celebrate Clarity
    Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.

    4. Quash Open-Ended Questions
    It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”

    5. Slash Surplus cc’s
    cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

    6. Tighten the Thread
    Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.

    7. Attack Attachments
    Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.

    8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR
    If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.

    9. Cut Contentless Responses
    You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

    10. Disconnect!
    If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter. And don’t forget to smell the roses.

I’d add that you should stop self-inflicted additions to the inbox and get your blog updates via RSS instead of email. Here at Slaw, we’re keen — nay, eager — to have you read us; but we’ve no wish to add to your sense of email overload.

I’m going to adopt #8 for sure. And, though it pains me, I’ll also buy into #9. And I think I’m easy with the rest.

How about you?


  1. I pledge wholehearted allegiance to #7 (“Attack Attachments”).

    But some of the rest of this is comparable to cutting “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” out of the English language. We could save a heap of time and many breaths by doing so, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

    E-mail is a form of communication, and as such demands politeness, consideration, and niceties. The following three items in the Charter seem potentially problematic in this respect:

    3. Celebrate Clarity
    4. Quash Open-Ended Questions
    9. Cut Contentless Responses

  2. I’ve been trying to teach email as a form of legal writing to law students for a number of years, and there is not much guidance to be had from the Law Societies or the CBA that I can find anyway, so I welcome the Charter.

    Two things I would add:

    1. Don’t send an email if it is only something you think the person should know about and you don’t know enough about all the recipients to really know if they do want to know about it, as in “you may find this article interesting . . .” in my case, most likely not, unless it is really special and in fact interesting; and

    2. Don’t send a email if you work in the same office and can actually talk to me about it in person.