We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

The late 1990s saw a revolution in office communications. Email, we were told, meant we'd never again have to trouble ourselves with face-to-face meetings and conversations – we could simply email our colleagues and business contacts instead.

It soon became clear, however, that something was missing from this de-personalised, electronic means of communication.

When speaking to someone in person, you pick up signals from their language, facial and verbal expressions, vocal intonation, body language, eye contact, posture, smell (not always a good thing) and a host of other factors.

But email is a different kettle of fish. By removing these visual and audio signs, you starve the recipient of vital clues to your meaning. It's such an informal and disposable medium that few of us devote the time and care needed for real clarity. And, unlike established non-visual modes of communication such as the telephone and the letter, email doesn't have well-known conventions and etiquette to guide participants through the maze of meaning.

On email, everything boils down to your ability to write an effective message. So you'd better get it right – with our help.

Paul Johnson is author of the Email Survival Guide, published by Bookguild and available from £6.49 at Waterstone.com, Amazon.co.uk or via survive-email.com.

We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

Breeding confusion

The problem is that most of us simply aren't familiar enough with the written word to articulate our message clearly and efficiently. Email might be quick, cheap and accessible by all, but messages can leave recipients unable to understand exactly what we're trying to say.

Misunderstanding breeds confusion, a bigger workload and a huge amount of dissatisfaction at work – with colleagues and business life in general.

Estimates suggest that over five trillion business email messages were sent in 2006 – that's about 15 billion per day, or 175,000 every second. Forget death by PowerPoint presentation; some days, it can feel as though you're drowning in email.

Companies enthusiastically adopted email and its success took everybody by surprise. But has email gone too far? Intel recently announced email-free Fridays, encouraging staff to talk and meet rather than sending each other messages.

Other companies have gone so far as to ban emails written to colleagues in the same building – now staff have to go and talk to them, assuming they remember what they look like.

We are, in effect, a largely unskilled and untrained email workforce. For most of us, the usual office defences of training and operating protocols have yet to catch up.

Paul Johnson is author of the Email Survival Guide, published by Bookguild and available from £6.49 at Waterstone.com, Amazon.co.uk or via survive-email.com.

We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

Personality, personality, personality

One thing email does is reinforce personality types; they pour out of the emails we write. There are four basic personalities:

End gamers are focused operators, seeking to achieve a goal or objective by whatever means necessary. They don't like excessive detail or complex procedures and aren't careful about people management.

Detail lovers like goals and objectives to be thoroughly explained and won't be happy to proceed otherwise. They want to gather all the available data and conduct a thorough analysis before reaching any conclusion.

Polite players avoid disruption or disagreement and want to get on well with the world around them. In pursuit of this goal they may mask their disagreement or resentment, which can cause problems later.

Image seekers like to be clear and open about objectives. They will broadcast their findings and welcome recognition, particularly from those in senior positions.

It's imperative that you understand the personality types of your email recipients. The group they fall into determines the type of message you should write.

Just as important is understanding the characteristics of the people who email you. That way you can understand what their message means and what they expect of you.

Regardless of the personality type you fall into, you'll get best results if you learn to adapt your writing style to meet that of your recipients.

Paul Johnson is author of the Email Survival Guide, published by Bookguild and available from £6.49 at Waterstone.com, Amazon.co.uk or via survive-email.com.

We all use email, but do any of us use it well? Get your message across with our advice.

Handling email better

Facing all these complications, how do you take back control of what can all too easily become an email nightmare? These ideas from the Email Survival Guide should help:

Email isn't the only communication tool: Blend electronic communication with more traditional means. Spend time away from your computer, get together with your colleagues and speak to them directly.

Consider your recipient's characteristics: Target their personality type. If they're punchy, don't waffle; if they're friendly then don't be the opposite. Understanding how your recipient will react to your message is vital to successful communication and will help get you the response you want.

Don't email everybody and their dog: All that will happen is that more people will respond to you and your inbox will become overloaded. Target your message to a few people, telling each person specifically what you want them to do.

Categorise your emails: Set up an 'Inbox Action' folder, with subfolders to denote the status of the messages. Typical folders could be 'Immediate action', 'Action within 72 hours' and 'No action – return to sender'. Deal with the emails as stated, prioritising important messages. Less critical material can be dealt with another day.

Read messages carefully: Don't assume that because an email sounds aggressive, critical, excessive or misguided it was actually intended that way. The sender's writing style probably mirrors their overall business style; take this into consideration when interpreting meaning.

Expect everyone to read your message: Emails get forwarded, and ultimately your mail could be read by anyone, anywhere – and with your name at the top, too. So don't write anything you wouldn't be happy for strangers (or your boss) to read.

Don't come across as negative: Don't swear, be crude or use offensive language. These are precisely the sort of emails that are likely to be forwarded on by others.

Don't send to multiple recipients: By sending an email to just one person you make it clear that they're expected to read and respond to it. Some users don't bother to look at CC emails at all.

Go easy on the attachments: Do you bother to wade through the massive spreadsheets included with colleagues' emails? Probably not. Point out the specific information you want the recipient to read and why.

Include relevant extracts in your email and refer to the 'detailed document attached'. They can choose to read this at their convenience.

Delete messages you've dealt with: Don't waste storage space keeping messages that you don't need – you'll also make it harder to find ones you do.

Define your working day: Allocate a time for email. You might just keep control.

Paul Johnson is author of the Email Survival Guide, published by Bookguild and available from £6.49 at Waterstone.com, Amazon.co.uk or via survive-email.com.