Chris Anderson

Curator, TED


This conversation is closed.

Let's save our inboxes by adopting this Email Charter!

Everyone I know is drowning in email. And every hour we spend working on our groaning inboxes is simply making the problem worse for our friends and colleagues. This stressful upward spiral can only be solved by us all agreeing new ground-rules. That's why a couple weeks ago I floated the idea of an Email Charter. the idea 'went viral' and I was deluged with suggestions and comments which I've tried to weave into this final version, just launched today.

I would absolutely love to get feedback from the brilliant TED community. Do you agree that this is an idea worth spreading? How could we improve it?

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    Jun 30 2011: Great list, Chris, many thanks! The only thing I would add is a respect for the distinction between "to" and "cc". Accept that people in "cc" don't feel a need to respond. Send the message "to" the person you want an answer from - and preferably only to that person.
    • Jul 24 2011: Just don't forget Bcc. Proper use of Bcc makes sure replies only go where they are welcome, and protects recipient privacy.
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        Jul 24 2011: Hello Stephanie,

        Could you be a little more specific on what you mean 'proper use of bcc'? Personally, I try to avoid it because it is intransparent. To me, using bcc is a sign of lack of trust in and transparency towards the other adressees.
        • Jul 24 2011: Aside from the "cc someone behind everyone's back" use case, there's also the broadcast message use case, which boils down to:

          If you are going to waste my time with those cute pictures of a cat that you cc to 1500 of your closest friends, don't.
          If you decide to do it anyway, at least take two seconds to protect my privacy, prevent a reply all flood, and prevent spammers and malware from having an easy time harvesting email addresses by pretending the To and CC fields aren't there, and only using bcc.

          This explains it better than I can.
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        Jul 25 2011: I understand and share your concern for privacy, Stephanie. Still, I can see why this is not part of the charter: sending a mail to a whole lot of people in bcc may protect their privacy, but it's still spamming. I don't think it an idea worth spreading ;-).
  • Jun 29 2011: I just added "Save Our Inboxes" to my "signature" in my gmail...I love this!! Thanks so much for sharing these ideas. The idea is more than worthy of spreading!! Let's get it started!!
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    Jun 29 2011: .
    1. Couldn't some of your suggestions be automated? Email servers and programs could include what you call a "status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]". Just fill in these categories and send, instead of writing them manually in the body of the email. Upon reception of the mail, these categories are then shown before you open the mail. You should then be able to rank the messages in your inbox according to these categories, and see which ones are important or need a reply urgently. This would help indeed.

    2. We should learn from diplomats. They often write ultra-short mails, using standard codes, and never spend a single word too much to convey a message.This stems from the tradition of the telegraph.

    3. You could organise a Twitteresque email service that only allows very short, SMS-like messages. If everybody becomes a member of this service, the world will be spending less time on drivel. The traditional email services who offer more text space, will then only be used for longer messages.
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      Jul 1 2011: Well said, Laurens. i just suggested this feature to GMAIL with your name as idea propagator and TED as Chris as idea founder. i have made a small contribution to the world of email etiquettes, i believe! good day
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      Jul 2 2011: Love these ideas, Laurens. Personally, I wish all of the email providers would jump to #3 as that could help the movement gain traction across providers. Or, perhaps an option that puts the contol in the users hands:

      #4. email provider(s) creates a setting that allows the user to opt-in to the setting that has a fixed character count on all their emails. This helps ensure the sender practices what they preach (every time) while an automatic signature notifies the recipient of the sender's preference.

      I also think we need to extend this charter to include slideware as outside of TED, the majority of PowerPoints/Keynotes are drowning in text which wastes the presenters time multiplied by the 10 to 100+ attendees.
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      Jul 7 2011: Laurens, check out! It just launched and is showing some promise!
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        Jul 7 2011: Hey, that's exactly what I was talking about. This is very useful indeed.

        I wonder if Shortmail was created after Chris Anderson's call for action.
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    Jul 24 2011: AnIIdea worth spreading!
    What I liked most is:
    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.
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    Jul 11 2011: > Do you agree that this is an idea worth spreading?


    > How could we improve it?

    As a TED Translator, I think you could dramatically improve the spreading by having the Charter "processed" like a TED Talk.

    Here's a possible roadmap:

    1) making a short (< 3 minutes) video that introduces the Charter and the website. Something like the short clip with which you announced the TEDx events;

    2) Publish the video on, and let volunteers translate it;

    3) Make the website multilanguage, and let volunteers translate it.

    Just my 2 cents. Hope you appreciate :)

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    Jul 27 2011: I think the volume of e-mails would go down if we had some country coordinators for TED translators, TEDx Organizers and others...

    For example in our case if our translators have questions, they apply to me, If there are questions that I can not answer, I usually collect them and then send it to our Coordinator at TED.

    I know this might not work in every country and in all cases, but still could help ... and those who want to contact TED directly, could still contact them (so no Gate Keeping error would occur ) ...
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    Jul 27 2011: This is an interesting idea and I support the motivation behind it. However, maybe I'm just the black sheep here, but I enjoy receiving emails and communicating through them. I'm not a CEO or Executive Director or anything, because that'd be an entirely different story (don't they usually have an assistant whose role is to manage their emails for them, among other things?), but I still get a fair amount of emails throughout the day on multiple accounts. Using a mail client helps a lot, like Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook. I see emails as a conversation between two or more people, just like a text message is or these days Facebook and Twitter, and so I always treat emails with the same respect as if I'm talking to someone in person.

    A way to improve things? I would just say keep it simple (the charter). The more rules and funky toys you throw in, the more cognitively demanding the process ends up being. I always remember something a previous supervisor of mine told me, 'Manage the information, don't let the information manage you."
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    Jul 27 2011: I suggest using different symbols in the subject to show the following:
    1-Importance of an Email “must read”
    2- Just for your information
    3-Do not reply
    4- Reply as soon as possible
    The servers E.G. Yahoo or Gmail can ask the sender to accept the Charter and be sincere when choosing the symbols. In this way we do not have to read all Emails and priority comes first. Another important rule which should come first in the charter is that the subject of Email must represent the brief idea of the Email as it is done in the headline of the newspapers. All the best.
  • Jul 24 2011: Sure. Bcc has several major uses. The traditional one is when you don't want those in the To or Cc fields to know that someone's been included - for example, an email to your boss and Bcc to a coworker (or your home address) for documentation purposes, or a conversation with a coworker about something that's creating friction in the work environment that you bcc to their boss or to HR to make sure it's documented.

    The other major use is actually twofold - when sending to a large group without the aid of a mailing list server, you use BCC to protect the list of recipients and prevent a reply all storm. Mass mails are bad enough on their own, but with the potential of them turning into reply storms, or of breaching a confidence - there's an implied trust when I give someone my email address that they won't broadcast it to all 1500 of their closes friends, they go from inconsiderate to downright harmful.
  • Jul 22 2011: Two things.
    First, senders can't be trusted to assess priority, don't ask them to. Instead, if the subject is clear, the priority becomes self evident - don't tell me something is important, tell me what makes it important and I can make the judgement.

    IF I'm faced with emails that say "the sales department file server is down" and "Urgent!!! need help!!!" I'm going to ignore the second until I take care of the first. The first demonstrates importance, the second demands it.

    Second, More emphasis needs to be placed on the proper use of CC and BCC, I skimmed over the site, and I don't see any mention of Bcc. This is an oversight, because proper use of Bcc not only protects my privacy, it protects my time from spam and reply all floods.
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    Jul 22 2011: Brilliant Chris...

    in my emails i ask only for Brevity and Bravado... [and allow some latitude for levity]
  • Jul 9 2011: Great concept Chris and brilliant foresight with the Email Charter. For many years I have been following the four D's of Do it, Delegate, Delete and Defer. The Charter would address the problem at the source (the sender).

    The discussed problem is a common problem we see in the office I work at.

    Two issues we commonly come across and have yet to overcome are:
    1. Peoples natural desire to categorize things in personal subfolders
    2. Miscommunication or no communication of priorities (eg: what the sender considers top priority may not be the readers)

    I support your efforts and will follow Tonys lead by adding the emailcharter link to my email signature.

    Do you (or the TED Community) have any suggestions to the above problems we may still face?
  • Jul 7 2011: Check out gmail's "priority inbox" - I think this is along the lines of point three in the charter.
  • Jun 29 2011: You've not discussed the absolute bane of email. The thing that fills inboxes and wastes time. The "REPLY TO ALL WITH HISTORY".

    If A sends an email to B and C, when B replies does C need to see it? When C replies does B need to see it? When B writes to C to discuss it, does A need to see that.

    REPLY TO ALL WITH HISTORY is evil. It's even more evil when the CC list has 10, 20, 50, 100 folks on it.

    Also don't get me started on top posting vs bottom posting vs interleaving answers between the questions. All three are common, but nobody sticks to a standard.
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    Jun 29 2011: Being behind a machine doesn't make us a machine. We are humans. Maybe it's time to become human again. What I intend to do is: Use my intuition and the email charter! I "know" when to read or answer an email if I carefully listen to myself. No answer = bad timing. Delete when I "feel" it. Be patient: patience is the new it-thing.
    Thank you Chris, this is a good idea!
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      Jun 29 2011: Vanina wrote "patience is the new in-thing."

      This gives me hope. Think how much more pleasant our world will be when we are all more patient. I hope you are right!
  • Jul 27 2011: What an excellent idea. This reminds me of the Sabbath Manifesto, a movement to relieve stress by "unplugging" at least one day a week. Are you familiar with it?
  • Jul 27 2011: I have worked in a number of companies that have tried to formalize the essence of your charter and none of the different ways they tried worked. I truly wish it could be this straight forward.

    Personal approach that has worked for my work inbox, is call and politely but firmly challenge every mail sender that breaches the basis rules embodied in the charter. It may not change the behaviour globally, but it works for my inbox and if more people did it... well maybe the message would be understood and people would think before leaping to email in the first place.
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    Jul 27 2011: I support this charter, as well as the ideas of Inbox Zero, which basically states that you should process all your email into actionable items and keep your inbox empty.

    I don't keep it up daily, but about once a week I clear all my old email and empty my inbox. Very freeing experience.
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    Jul 26 2011: I agree (eom)
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    Jul 25 2011: yes! great supporter of less emails!
    i'd include some guidance on 121 communication as well. When to email vs. tel call / conf call / 121 meeting / group meeting / stand up from your desk to cover the 25m separating you from your colleague...
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    Jul 25 2011: Some great points in this charter. I'd like to see the crisp, clear and muddle free writing applied to everyones comments on this conversation site too (not specifically this conversation).
    I know English isn't everyones first language, fair enough, but I think in a lot of cases people are typing and submitting without giving their writing a quick proofread. By being a little more clear, focused and concise, one saves every reader from having to interpret meaning and read waffle. I do, however, enjoy reading everyones comments, most of which I can understand ;)
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    Jul 24 2011: IIRC, in the early days it was considered good netiquette to make messages short and to the point in order to not waste people's time.
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    Jul 24 2011: very nice project.
    useful for people receiving a lot of mails like me.
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    Jul 12 2011: Yes, and I would add the ethic that attention is a gift, so the email initiator should recognize that they are asking for a gift of time. An offered gift should neither presume nor incur an obligation. Skip the guilt dynamic and create an attitude of gratitude.
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    Jul 6 2011: This is an important conversation to be having, Chris. While this charter contains some solid ideas, I do think it could be improved upon.

    Perhaps we could harness the power of the "disconnect" category to only reply to emails when we have time to read and reply to them thoughtfully. I find that when I confine my email-checking-time to distinct, short sessions I am able to communicate more productively. However, when I read emails on the fly, I'm more likely to give an incomplete response which ultimately leads to more correspondence.

    Most of all, I appreciated the suggestion that we consider picking up the phone: as communication technologies go, the human voice is an incredibly nimble instrument.
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    Jul 5 2011: Whilst I think it is a brilliant concept there is the issue of culpability, or presumption of culpability. When you send someone an email it is in writing. Black and white and you know somewhere in the ether it is on record. When you have a client, colleague or friend "suggesting" something was said you can dig out the email and ping it back as proof.

    For this fabulous concept to work we need some form of increased trust, or we will continue to receive, and store, hundreds and hundreds of emails.
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    Jul 3 2011: Turn on the Twitter-like option on your email provider. Below the email is an automated message: this is the Twitter-like email.

    Just to let people know it's not a formal letter.
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      Jul 1 2011: I'll take the liberty of answering this (hope you don't mind Chris)
      1. Chris does get Email from other sources then TED's mailing system.
      2. The "T" stands for Technology Kathy.

    • Comment deleted

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    Jul 1 2011: Everyone I know is drowning in email.
    Yes - big portion of that being Spam.
    The charter has good suggestions, good for cooperative friends.
    BUT the Spam problem needs to be solved first, at it is solvable,
    solvable without governmental supervision.

    Briefly, it would add to mail agents (programs which read mail) a button(s)
    similar to 'flag' in these discussion. (One value of the flag could be 'too long').
    so I can decide what is Spam, what I consider vulgar or just not interesting.

    Of course, to work it will has to deal with anonymity/registration of the senders.
    That can be solved, if large enough community will start such a voluntary effort.

    TED community could be such a seminal group to test and develop such Spam-shield,
    not based on filters. Filters will never work - there is an arms race between spammers
    and filter developers, which the spammers will always be winning ...

    Anyway, I can expand on this, if anyone expresses interest. For now. in interest
    of brevity - I will stop.
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    Jun 30 2011: Good one!
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    Jun 30 2011: Thumbs up - way up!
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    Jun 30 2011: About Emails Chris... How is the progress with TED's going?
    I really miss the "**** ***** sent you a message on"
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    Jun 30 2011: one of the biggest problem i used to face in my email was that i used to carry all the updates from my facebook, orkut or other forums like that from red cross etc into my emails. so, what happend was that every comment and responds from all these websites were also bumping into my email account. the same update will be visible to me when i open my profile in these websites. the geniune mails like a personal invitation or an event might be left unseen in the same process, while deleting the less relevant ones. So, if we make sure we filter the mails in a way that we keep our mail open only to the gathering of messages that are really relevant for us, we can save a lot of time in the process
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    Jun 30 2011: This is great. To expand this notion what we really need is a couple of what would amount to etiquette books regarding how no deal with new technology. We rush an e mail instead of think of something meaningful to say because we do not have social approval to do so.
  • Jun 29 2011: This charter makes great sense. It's just good communications practices--respect your audience. I will sign it.
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    Jun 29 2011: Chris, this is a great idea!
    I will do my best to follow the rules/guidelines and spread them.

    NNTR ;)
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    Jun 29 2011: Adding a limit to the amount of words would also be nice...
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    Jun 29 2011: This seems like a very helpful concept, Chris. My one suggestion would be to emphasize clarifying the subject heading for messages sent to multiple recipients so it is easy to file or delete without opening. Your idea for status categories could be expanded to further simplify this process. Setting up similar categories as subfolders in our inboxes would make it easier for emails to be sorted and saved without having to open them.
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    Jun 29 2011: I like the way facebook is tackling this problem. Instead of having an email service, they are using a messaging service, which in a sense is less formal and require less useless typing etc.

    on the other hand, I dont really know if a problem like this can be solved using a "script" or a service. This seems to be more of a "cultural" problem...