By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support Services/Communications Services
In the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, defense attorney Henry Drummond argues against prosecution of a teacher who discussed evolution in his Tennessee classroom. At one point, he reasons that many changes in life that have benefits also come with a price.
“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it,” Drummond declares. “Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.”
One wonders what Drummond’s character would have to say about the impact email has had on our privacy and distance?
Electronic mail is a communications tool that few of us would completely, absolutely, totally wish to go away. Of course, I for one could do without the email pitches about diet pills, ecigarettes, doubling my income, checking my credit scores, curing baldness, stopping snoring, free DVDs, and those millions I could make by helping that guy in Nigeria to move his money to America. (One day of spam).
According to a September report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 85 percent of Americans age 18 and older use email regularly. (Ironically, other research found use of email by American youth in a steady decline since 2010, primarily due to the explosion of texting.)
For superintendents and school board members in general, email is now an indispensable way to ask questions, get answers and stay in the loop for the decisions school leaders make every day. But all too often, many of us fall into using email for quantity over quality in exchanging information.
Arguably the most significant benefit of email is speed. I’m often surprised when a rapid reply nets a comeback email, “Wow. Thanks for the quick response.” Makes me wonder if I’ve acted really quickly or if we’re just used to people taking a loooooooong time to get back because of busy schedules.
Those who use email as a prime communications tool have a responsibility to make monitoring the message account a priority, too. A goal of replying to emails in 60 minutes is probably unrealistic. No one should become a slave to email as an expectation. Conversely, managers or public officials who set aside certain times of the day to deal with email may compromise their images in a world of express expectations.
Just as arguably, the biggest downside of email is responding without thinking the message through.
Quick points to ponder:
• Never – ever – fire off an email in anger, frustration or any other emotion.
• No reply is so important that a minute or two of review will harm.
• Rewritten replies are almost always more effective, especially if conflict is involved.
• Don’t hesitate to follow up to correct or clarify, update…or even apologize.
• The more complex the subject of an email, the greater the chance a reader may misunderstand.
• “Reply all” actually is a creation of the devil and should be avoided more often than not.
Effective emails should be all about considered content that is comprehended at the other end.
The Last Word
If you’ve honestly never sent an email that you quickly regretted (forget the “message recall” option; some people read as fast as you send), you’ve led a charmed communications life – so far.
As primary producer of KSBA’s eNews Service, I generate as many as 7,000 emails each work day. Hardly a news cycle goes by that I don’t pause after writing (and often rewriting), spell checking and link checking the headlines before hitting “send.” For the math lovers out there, that’s about 6,500 opportunities annually to screw up in an email – and it doesn’t include the dozens of inquiries and replies for the rest of the communications that go with the job.
Email is indeed a marvelous way for school leaders to share information. Even with the “stuff” that gets past the spam filter, I wouldn’t want to go back to the not-so-good old days of waiting to get answers and missing opportunities to share useful knowledge.
But all of us could benefit from taking a turn on the proverb “Measure twice, cut once” by composing and/or looking twice, emailing once.
And that’s a message worth getting out.