About debrakahn

Based in Colorado, Debra Kahn is a professional communicator and program manager with lots of experience in high tech. She is also a certified project management professional (PMP).

5 Intersects of Content Strategy and Project Management (Part 3)

Validating a work plan, even a high-level strategic one, is key to success in the fields of both content strategy and project management. Obviously, if you have no constraints and an unlimited budget, then you have no need to challenge such a wonderland existence. But, alas, most of us live in the real world, ruled at least by the triple constraints – schedule, cost, and scope/quality. And some would argue that our constraints number even more.

Note: This blog is the third in a five-part series that examines how the elements of the content strategist role both parallel and intersect those of the project manager’s roleSee part 2, published in May 2019.

So validating the efficacy of a strategic plan becomes more of a requirement than a luxury. For content strategy, the simplest validations are the most obvious ones:

  1. What are the priorities for your organization? For your audiences?
  2. What does the data tell you?
  3. What deadlines must you meet?
  4. How can you pull this off with the resources you have?

It’s probably best to tackle the questions in order.

  1. The first question speaks to your core content strategy as well as to expressed project and messaging goals. Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach in their book Content Strategy for the Web reminds us that a “core strategy sets the long-term direction for all of your content-related initiatives” and thus helps you keep moving forward.
    –>On the tactical, project level, you should star, highlight or otherwise begin to distinguish the must-have content work from the nice-to-have.
  2. The second question speaks to metrics, a topic that I plan to give more depth in a later blog. That said, for planning new content, you will find value in examining page visits to and downloads of similar content over the past six months. Include user journeys and search term rankings if possible. And if your team or the larger organization does audience surveys, carefully examine those results.
    –>Look for trends over time. Did you miss something in your gap analysis? If so, add it to the work plan and give it an appropriate priority.
  3. The third question and fourth questions help you winnow the wheat from the chaff. If your original plan calls for 14 videos, and you have only one video expert and six weeks to complete all video work, your plan likely needs adjustment. Besides planning (e.g., creating a shot list) and filming, videos can require scripting, editing, and post-production processing – all of which are time-consuming.
    –> If you can’t add resources, you’ll likely have cut the number of videos for the project.
  4. On the topic of resources, remember that not all content has to be home-grown (i.e., “original content”). Consider where you can aggregate existing content from outside sources and curate it for effective presentation to your users. In the book Medill on Media, Owen Youngman explains that curating content “combines intentionality, audience knowledge, filtering, and quality control.” It is a type of cherry-picking for relevance.
    –>However, content curation still requires someone to do the initial work and maintain the resulting output for its life cycle.

…begin to distinguish the must-have content from the nice-to-have.

Speaking of a content life cycle, remember as you winnow your work plan that content not only requires a development cycle – a set of iterations involving reviews and revisions – but also some kind of governance of its life after it is published. How much maintenance will the content require in the future? How long a life will the content have?

Some balancing of these considerations should be part of your planning. For instance, your team might want to consider curating short-lived content and putting some sort of trigger in place to remove it after a certain timeframe.

The outcome of this winnowing effort should be a refined, specific work plan and a content calendar, also referred to as a content-planning calendar.

The American Society of Association Executives recently reported that among professional associations, the content-planning calendar was the most commonly used of 17 content strategy tactics uncovered by an ASAE survey. (To see the list of tactics, refer to “How Are Associations Thinking About Content Strategy?”)

At this point, with your content-planning calendar in hand and your work plan refined, you will have to get buy-in from strategic stakeholders before you proceed with implementation. For that, you will have to rely on your negotiation skills and organizational processes. Good luck!

The next blog in this series will address – as previously promised – leveraging proofs of concept, incremental reviews, and other techniques for monitoring and managing your content strategy’s implementation.

5 Intersects of Content Strategy and Project Management (Part 2)

Developing the work focus and/or the work plan during development also proves to be common ground for both the project manager and the content strategist.

  • The project manager analyzes the requirements and the available resources and delivers a work breakdown structure or work package. That deliverable can be a set of stories for a two-week sprint or a full-blown Gantt chart.
  • The content strategist performs a similar analysis. But she must also consider how existing content and communication channels match with user wants and needs, as revealed by the audience and task analysis that she performed in the early stages of the project. The deliverables from this effort might also vary in form and format.

Note: This blog is the second in a five-part series that examines how the elements of the content strategist role both parallel and intersect those of the project manager’s role. See part 1 published in March 2019.

To help focus the work and the work plan, both roles consider the future state and perform a gap analysis, particularly if the customer deliverable is a new version of an existing product.

The primary tools that a content strategist will use to perform this gap analysis are a content inventory and a content audit. Both serve to help scope the work by answering the question “what is missing?” and both serve as a reference during development.

What is the difference?

Content Audit vs Content Inventory

Ann Rockley and Charles Cooper in their seminal book Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy distinguish a content inventory from a content audit by telling us that a content audit is the “process of actually looking at the content and assessing its value and opportunities for reuse.” In other words, a content audit is qualitative in nature.

On the other hand, the content inventory is, according to Kristina Halverson and Melissa Rauch, more quantitative in that it provides “just the facts,” focusing more on listing content and its use and or location. (Their book Content Strategy for the Web is one of my favorites.)

Choosing one over the other might be driven by time and/or resources. CMS, LMS, and database tools can help in assembling a content inventory, and often the resulting list can be pulled into a spreadsheet.

Then fact-based decisions can be made about what to keep and what to add to meet the parameters of the project and the audience needs. If customer deliverable and audience(s) are similar enough to a previous deliverable, perhaps the inventory and some straight-forward gap-filling are all that is needed.

I’ve leveraged such spreadsheets myself to accomplish such goals as planning web navigation and deciding where a new, small set of task topics best fit in the overall scheme of content deliverables.

Benefits of a Content Audit

A more qualitative approach to content analysis would have to be more specifically focused, but might yield more useful results. All of the experts I’ve encountered suggest taking a representative sample and then applying a course of assessments to what you’ve gathered: alignment with best practices, strategic fit, and/or reusability. Then apply the findings to the greater content set.

(Content reuse is a big topic, and I bow to other experts in the field, such as the folks at CIDM, for their guidance in a later evolution of this blog.)

Note that assessing content for its alignment to best practices should include an agreed-upon rubric. How does your team describe quality content?

You might want to start with Ahava Liebtag’s Step-by-Step Checklist, and adapt as needed – especially if your deliverables include more than text-based content. Another good resource is Sarah O’Keefe’s “hierarchy of content needs,” which she has described in a recent TechComm article (see the article Understanding Content Strategy as a Specialized Form of Management Consulting). Remember to consider the customer experience with the content, too.

Whichever path you take in a qualitative audit, I promise you the effort will be worthwhile – even quantifiably so! According to strategist Carrie Hane Dennison, as quoted by Halverson and Rauch,

…for every 5 hours spent performing a content audit near the beginning of a project, 20 hours can be saved during later stages, preventing costly project delays.

Carrie Hane Dennison

Content audits can also lead to creative problem-solving. I’ve recently leveraged the results of a set of rolling content audits I performed to propose a new approach to a specific content type, setting our content (and my team) up to grow in a strategic direction while meeting the needs of a new audience.

Application to Work Planning

The gap analysis – defined in terms of opportunities to meet new or evolving audience/user needs – helps the both project manager and the content strategist decide to do next. Fill the gaps, of course.

In the world of content development, especially when it engages sophisticated tools like a CMS and DITA, a content strategist and development team have lots to consider:

  1. What type of content is best to meet the audience’s needs? (DITA gives us the archetypes of task, concept, and reference).
  2. What level of detail is needed?
  3. How best can the content be conveyed to the audience (table, illustration, video, help file, FAQ, chatbot, etc.)?
  4. How should differences among audiences be accommodated?
  5. How should the content be categorized? And how should metadata applied?
  6. How does the content leverage or expand existing infrastructure? For example, an existing information model? An existing reuse strategy?

Not all of this has to be decided up front. Content development is as much discovery as development. But what should be decided up front is how the development team – content developers and product developers – work together.  

How a content strategist applies the outcome of a content inventory or content audit will vary by project. Often, the breadth of the project and the level of engagement with product development – and with learning deliverables development – will influence that initial project planning piece.

My team, in the midst of tackling content to support a major release and a new audience, has chosen, for example, to leverage a modified Kanban approach. We use an Agile-friendly tool that allows content strategy inputs and analysis to be recorded in “spike” stories within a larger “epic” that contains multiple work “stories” or issues.

Note that prioritization of content development can be part of this planning, too, but often evolves through later stages of development.

The next blog in this series will address validating the work plan and refining a content-planning calendar.

7 Definitions of Content Strategy (in 16 Years)

If you don’t know what content strategy is…well, you have good company in the majority of my friends. Below are some definitions of content strategy that I have collected or borrowed from the collections of others. Hopefully, they will help you and my supportive but confused friends understand better what I do for a living.

“[Content strategy is] A repeatable method of identifying all content requirements up front, creating consistently structured content for reuse, managing that content in a definitive source, and assembling content on demand to meet your customers’ needs.” – Ann Rockley in Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy (New Riders, 2003).

“Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content” – The 2009 Content Strategy Consortium.

“’Content is story. And content strategy is storytelling’…In this model, the content strategist figures out how best to tell the story: what assets are present, what do they need to prescribe, how should they be arranged, and how should they be updated or maintained?” – Margot Bloomstein in Content Strategy at Work (Elsevier, 2012).

“Content strategy is a system that consists of a repeatable process that governs the management of the content throughout the entire content lifecycle.” – Rahel Anne Bailie in “A Methodology for Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“But content strategy is more than that. It’s about envisioning the future of content – its development, management, and delivery – and creating a plan that helps us leverage content to achieve its goals. It’s about creating a flexible, responsive roadmap that can be quickly adapted to the challenges that will undoubtedly interfere with our well-intentioned plans for success.” – Scot Abel in “The Importance of Vision in Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“A content strategy establishes how an organization will leverage its content assets to achieve its overall business goals. A content strategy also provides a roadmap describing how these goals will be realized.” – Joe Gollner in “The Technology Side of a Content Strategy,” Intercom (Society for Technical Communication), May 2013.

“…I would add: content strategy is what guides content teams to best processes for each stage of the content cycle.” – Monica Bussolati in “10 Definitions of Content Strategy” (blog, Sept. 2017)

I have placed these in chronological order to better appreciate the evolution of the discipline of content strategy since Rockley (with Pamela Kostur and Steve Manning) wrote her seminal book. I see goal-driven planning, roadmap creation, repeatable process, and governance as common concepts across these definitions and across the years. What do you see? How do these definitions align with your experiences?

Documenting a Hardware API: The Challenges

In last month’s blog, I summarized some introductory concepts and tools for writing about hardware-related REST APIs, a journey I started myself a little over a year ago. To be honest, though, I didn’t make that journey alone. I have been the content strategist for a group of writers, who came at the challenge from various backgrounds.

As such I understand some – but not all – of the sticking points for some writers from some backgrounds. So I am curious, what other challenges do you or your team face when writing about a system-level or hardware-level REST API?

One example of a challenge that we faced as a team – documenting a REST API written by two geographically separate software development teams – was adhering to a consistent and common terminology for common concepts. And this was true of the developers, too, as they developed data types and parameters for the API.

I was amazed, as an example, how many different terms we in the high-tech world have for describing the capacity of a storage drive (be it HDD or SSD)…disk space, drive space, drive space allocation, storage space, storage allocation, repository, storage repository…and well, you get the idea. Difficult enough for one person (sigh, that would be me, the content strategist) to keep track of, let alone whole teams of people.

Let me know what kinds of challenges your team faces in your REST API journey. I will summarize them here in this blog space in a couple of weeks. I am happy to do so with or without mentioning names or companies.

Comment on this blog or send me an email at debra@dkconsultingcolorado.com. Looking forward to hearing from you!

8 REST API Documentation Tips for Hardware Writers

Introduction:  I re-joined Oracle as a technical writer and content strategist in a storage systems development group over two years ago. In mid-2017, our team recognized the need to expand our content about a system’s evolving REST API. Like many veterans of hardware documentation, I didn’t know much about APIs, RESTful or otherwise. So I embarked on a journey to learn more.

This blog, written originally near the beginning of that journey (for a class) and updated since, presents helpful links and guidelines about REST APIs for former hardware technical writers like me.

Technology services based on the representational state transfer (REST) architecture or a RESTful application programming interface (API) are becoming more important for hardware developers and content developers to understand. Wait, what? Why do I have to understand programming stuff?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but programming isn’t just for coders any more. APIs in general – and REST APIs in particular – play an increasingly central role in the burgeoning cloud services market as well as the Internet of Things (IoT), according to Jennifer Riggins and others.

Because APIs provide a “level of abstraction” beyond the uniqueness of the “thing” itself, they enable a connectedness and interconnectedness that we mere humans have not seen from our refrigerators and vacuums before. For a perspective, review Alexandra Bowen’s still-relevant 2016 SlideShare set, and memorize her first answer to the question – Why APIs? “APIs provide the ability to glue and integrate services.”

REST API Concepts

Before you start to panic, remember that a REST API is based on the target’s “resources” – that is, the elements of the hardware itself as well as the data that journeys to and from that hardware:  disk drives, temperature sensors, network connections, user account data, and so on. These are concepts most of you are already familiar with.

Also remember that actual “programming” doesn’t really occur within the REST architecture. Activity is limited to configuring, retrieving, changing, or removing the target’s resources. These activities are controlled by the four main HTTP methods – GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE – which are common across most REST APIs. (For a description of the HTTP methods, refer to the RestAPITutorial page on the topic.)

If you need to get further acquainted or re-acquainted with REST concepts and terminology, review the Pearson eCollege tutorial on YouTube. And yes, for those of you who love Wikipedia, it offers a pretty good overview, too.

Guidelines for Documentation

Development of REST API content has become more standardized in recent years. Writers can assume a certain amount of experience and knowledge on the part of the audience, especially developers. Consumers of REST API documentation, in turn, expect to see content that meets them at their level. They may even expect the content to be organized in a certain manner or contain certain topics.

So as with any documentation project, start with understanding the REST API’s audience. To gather some tips about audiences, read Diana Lakatos’ blog “The Ten Essentials for Good API Documentation.”

Next, use the following eight guidelines to plan and organize your REST API content:

  1. Create a short Getting Started section that contains the following:
    1. The format for a fully qualified URI, including the base URL
    2. Authentication instructions
  2. Describe any unique request headers or unique use of request headers, or anything else unique about the API, including special query parameters.
  3. Include an alphabetical list of resources for easy reference.
  4. Provide details about each resource and endpoint; if need be, group the resources into logical categories for better management of the details.
  5. Provide lots of example requests and, as needed, example responses. Developers love code examples!
  6. Ensure that all your code examples appear in the programming language most often used by the target audience (for example, JSON).
  7. Include a list of status (HTTP) codes.
  8. Provide guidance for error-handling, as needed.

Going Further with REST API Documentation

For more tips on how best to document a REST API, review the 2016 SlideShare set from Marta Rauch of Oracle Corporation and read Diana Lakatos’ second blog “Ten Extras for Great API Documentation.”

Many RESTful API gurus point to Twilio’s REST API guide as a model for good API content. However, I prefer Twitter’s approach, which I find easier to navigate. For an example of hardware-specific documentation, see Oracle’s guide to the RESTful API for its ZFS Storage Appliance (written by a team other than mine).

Finally, as for which tools to use when you document your product’s REST API, almost any good documentation tool will suffice. That said, there is a growing trend among professionals to intertwine REST API development and documentation by using tools like Swagger – now associated with the OpenAPI Specification or OAS (refer to http://swagger.io/).

For some tips on how to evaluate REST API documentation tools, read the Algolia blog “Good API Documentation Is Not about Choosing the Right Tool.” For a review of available tools, read the article “Best Practices and Tools for Documenting APIs” by Mark Boyd of ProgrammableWeb, a news and information website dedicated to APIs.

Now you know as much or more than I did when I started my journey. Good luck to you!

Note: Mention of products or companies in this blog does not constitute an endorsement of those products or companies by me.

4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #4

OK. Serious case of writer’s block now for several months – not to mention side work as a contract technical writer.

Soooo, once again, here are my four rules for thoughtful and professional use of business email:

  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

As the rule list suggests, the fourth rule is really a result of conscientious use of the first three rules. Follow-up consists of – Ahem! <embarrassed throat-clearing> – not dropping the ball once it is in flight and also using good networking skills. Both stem from the well-known variation on the golden rule  – you know, the one that says it’s best to try to walk a mile in someone else’s Converse high-tops before you pass judgment.

Converse high top

Dropped-ball avoidance (just developing the sports metaphor here, so please don’t judge!) is a simple guideline to implement. It means that if you started the email string to begin with, you are responsible for closing it out. Typically, you can do that with a summary/next steps email back to all respondents on the string. Summarize the ideas they shared, thank them for sharing, and indicate what you and/or your team will do with those ideas (your next steps).

You can even follow up on the follow-up and go back to the email string after several weeks to inform everyone what steps/ideas you and/or your team have implemented.

You can also take follow-up in a different direction and examine the responses in the email string as jumping-off points for networking opportunities. (And yes, even those of you who are securely employed need to take advantage of networking opportunities.) Was someone included on the email string whom you have never encountered? Was someone on the email string especially critical of your team or their effort? Or did someone on the email string seem to struggle with understanding the topic?

All of these situations represent opportunities for you to reach out informally to the responder and talk – over coffee, over lunch, over Skype, whatever. Get some face time with him/her. Most of the time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you have in common with that person, and you might even find opportunities in which the two of you can collaborate. In fact, you might just find your next big opportunity professionally through that conversation. Or maybe just your next pick-up ball game. Either way, you’ve pushed beyond the keyboard and made a real connection. Good for you!

For those of you in the U.S., please have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday!

4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #3

Is it too late to wish you all a Happy New Year?

OK. It’s been a while. There, I’ve said it. I started another writing gig in late December, and I have been remiss about updating this blog. And I am sorry. On the plus side, I get lots of opportunity these days to put my own words of wisdom into practice. (But, obviously, I am not above punning….)

So – Ahem – to review, here are my four rules for writing professional, business-like emails:

  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

Before the holidays, I got through the first two, so I’ll focus this blog on the third – Be Clear!

Waterford Gifts, Lismore Crystal Bowl 6"

Clarity in emails, like clarity in crystal-ware, is a balance of ingredients. Lead crystal, also known as “flint glass,” is made up of silica and lead; traditionally, in fact, it was 24% lead oxide (which gives flint glass its refractive qualities but is not so good for the human nervous system). Lead crystal is still beautiful to look at. Waterford’s lead crystal chandeliers glitter ever on in Westminster Abby, and Waterford lead-crystal panels comprise the famous New Year’s Eve Ball in Times Square (see how I snuck that in there!). Lead-free crystal is also a balancing act, with various alternative oxides (potassium, zinc or barium) replacing the lead oxide.

Clarity in business emails comes from balancing straight-forwardness (for lack of a better word) with brevity – with a little bit of good organization and audience sensitivity thrown in. In fact, a straight-forward organization of your email is a good place to start. Always start with your ask and/or an introduction to your attachment. That is, lead (pronounce it “leed” in this sentence!) with your question or request or – if you are responding to another email – lead with your response and/or a brief phrase/sentence that describes your attachment.

Recently, a friend of mine was awkwardly caught up in a job-referral situation in which she wanted to ask a complete stranger for a job interview, having been referred to that stranger by a manager who had rejected her job application at his company (though he did so with great heart and positive feedback). She asked me to look at her email, which opened with a long complex sentence about her job qualifications. (For an example of a long, complex sentence, look at the first sentence in this paragraph!) She followed that with her question, requesting an interview.

I advised her to start the email with her question (since the email from the mutual acquaintance was attached anyway) and to follow that question with two sentences created from the overly complex sentence she had originally started with. Wallah! She secured the job interview and went on to win the job. Hurray! OK, her success probably can’t be solely attributed to her revised email. But I like to think I helped.

If your opening sentence (with your question/request or response/attachment-description) needs more context, then go ahead and provide it – but in a separate paragraph. You can even label that paragraph with the heading “Background,” “Clarification” or “Additional Information.” Here’s where audience sensitivity comes in. Most of the time, your reader will be interested only in (and read no further than) your ask or response. However, sometimes if – like me – they are overwhelmed with email and might have no clue what you are talking about, they need to understand the circumstances that compelled you to write the email. This is particularly true if you are rejecting a proposal or idea.

The idea here is avoid leaving the reader to guess about what you mean (“What the…?”) – or to guess about where you stand. Give him/her another sentence or three (depending on the situation) that provides some context for your opening phrase/sentence. Keep it brief, but be sensitive.

Example: How about lunch on Friday? I have news to share!

Response: Can we push to Monday? Have a big project due 1pm Friday.

While this simple exchange would have been fine minus the second sentences in each, the expanded versions let each recipient know that the relationship valued (well, relatively speaking). Plus it sets up at least two topics of conversation for the ensuing lunch.

Which brings me to the fact that I am very hungry. OK, too much information – including too much information in an email – is never a good thing. So always circle back to the previous rules – be polite and, above all, be professional. No need for my email pals to know that my stomach is grumbling. I’ll spare them (but not you!) that detail.

Before I go on to my dinner (and sipping wine from a crystal decanter!), I’ll remind you that I have one more business email rule to define – Follow up!

5 Christmas Mondegreens

Merry Christmas, all!

Interrupting the flow of my email rules to bring you my five favorite Christmas song mondegreens.

What is a mondegreen? The term refers to misheard words in a song. According to Leanne Italie of the Associated Press, who interviewed expert Grant Barrett, the word “mondegreen” arose from a 1954 Harper’s Magazine column written by Sylvia Wright. Wright discovered that for years she had misheard (and mis-repeated) the first stanza of the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.”

The original line from the ballad: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the green.”

What Ms. Wright heard: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and the Lady Mondegreen.”

Christmas songs, especially as sung by children, are ripe for mondegreens. Here are my five favorites (in English).

1. From ‘Silent Night’ – “…sleep in heavenly peas…”

2. From ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – “…6 geezers laying…”

3. Also from ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – “…9 lazy Hansens…” (instead of “ladies dancing”)

4. From ‘Santa Claus Is Comin to Town’ – “…making a list, of chicken and rice…”

5. From ‘Winter Wonderland’ – “Later on milk and spiders, as we dream by the fire.” (instead of “Later on we’ll conspire…”)

Do you have some favorite Christmas song mondegreens? Please share!

4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #2

As a memory jog, here again are my 4 rules (guidelines) of business email etiquette:

  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

When I wrote about the first rule of business email – Be Polite – I suggested that you avoid email wars by requesting use of a different communication channel (phone call, face-to-face meeting, facilitated meeting, water pistols at midnight, whatever). But if you absolutely, have to respond by email, please, please remember that you are responding to a human being, not a machine. Most human beings these days – at least the ones I know – are doing the best they can while facing tremendous personal and/or professional challenges. So please remember that.

And if you can’t remember that (really? It’s so hard?), then remember that nasty-grams can live forever on someone’s hard disk drive. So be neutral, be sensitive, be smart and above all, be professional.

And that is our second rule of business email – Be Professional.

Email gurus Silberman and Johnson both remind us to watch the tone of our emails. Tone is a tricky thing. But believe it or not, it’s easier to moderate the tone of a written communication than it is sometimes to moderate the tone of our voice. (You can test this next time your cube neighbor douses you with a water pistol – how high and loud is your voice as you supposedly laugh it off?)

To moderate the tone of your emails, choose neutral words in place of more highly charged words. For example, refer to “status,” “open issues,” and “concerns,” not “debacles,” “problems,” or “mistakes.” While you might consider a shifting deadline to be an “issue,” it’s probably better not to refer to it as “missed” or “failed,” unless those words are used officially by your company or are generated by a software application – and you have your attorney sitting right next to you (holding a water pistol). People do take these labels personally, and you don’t want wade into an inter-departmental (or inter-company) conflict unnecessarily.


Pushing into controversy myself a bit here (cue toe-in-water image), I’ll say that part of being professional is being sensitive to the person who was concerned enough about a topic to actually send you an email, especially if that someone is lower on the food chain than you. Being tough or clever or “above the fray” doesn’t always win the day; being appreciative and helpful can have more lasting effects (and remember, the email sender might not always be lower on the food chain).

(Note that I am not going to use the American idiom about catching flies with honey here, because, well, it’s gross and, besides, I’ve already used the term “food chain.”)

You know this, because you know it’s true in “real life,” too. I was reminded of this recently when I attended an evening public meeting in my community. Four professionals had formed a panel discussion on a specific topic. (I’ll be neutral here and not name the topic.) Toward the end of the evening, a woman in the audience stood up and asked specifically for help for her child. She was obviously emotional (though not overly so) but very sincere in her request. Not one of the panel members responded. Yes, you read that correctly, not even one.

Finally (to the relief of everyone), another professional in the audience stood up and offered to talk with her after the meeting. (At the same time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure that he was the best person to help her.)

How hard was that? Which one of the six people involved in this situation was the most professional, in your opinion?

OK, now I’ll take my toe out of the water, foot out of my mouth, water pistol away from my head, whatever, and talk about one last pet peeve about professionalism in business email. And that has to do with loooooooong email chains – the kind that cross weeks and even months on the calendar – or emails with multiple or hefty attachments. For the love of Mike, people, keep the context but ditch the heft! Mike, by the way, is the poor IT guy responsible for your company’s overtaxed email server.

So the last sub-rule is about professionalism when responding to a business email that’s been circulated through half the world: Be smart. Before you hit Reply All, make sure that all of the right people are on the distribution list; then delete and summarize any of the simple intervening replies (say “the following people on the distribution list have already agreed”; then list them) and keep the original email as close on the page to your response as possible. Believe me, people will thank you (including Mike).

And I will thank you to keep reading my blogs on email etiquette (smooth, eh?). Next topic is business email Rule #3 – Be Clear.