Beware ‘Reply All’

StrategyDriven Business Communications ArticleWe actually had an email system at my my first job with IBM in 1986. On day one they sat me down in front of a huge green screen and introduced me to PROFS. “This is your PRofessional OFFice,” they said, “and how we all communicate.”

In those days, email lived on a mainframe and could only be sent when you were actually in front of a mainframe terminal. Actually, it could be sent from any terminal in the whole IBM world, and there were hundreds of thousands of them. In hindsight, that was one of its greatest features. No email at home, no email in the car and no email on the plane. How life has changed.

Another feature that came from being mainframe based was how easy it was to backup and archive everything. Copies were kept—even when you thought you had deleted them. Just ask Oliver North. Congress subsequently examined his PROFS based email archive during the investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Unfortunately, while email was designed to be a productivity enhancer, it has developed into something that is quite the opposite. One of the biggest culprits for this is the ‘Reply All’ option.

When I worked at StorageTek, we had no ‘Reply All,’ or ‘Reply to All,’ as it was known then. Somehow, our CEO discovered a way obliterate the option through Microsoft Office. Whenever I tell people this, they always ask two questions. First—how did he do it? Second—was it a good idea?

If you want to know how to remove ‘Reply All’ from your email, just Google it. The search will yield more than six million results – so it is obviously a highly desired course of action. Most of the advice reveals a step-by-step guide to remove the button from your menu.

But when it comes to whether or not you should do it, that is a harder question.

The reason why it is such a frustrating function is because there are often too many names on an email’s To or CC list. What’s worse? Someone on that list usually also hits Reply All. I do not mind getting company-wide emails, but I do not want to see every question that everyone has on it. We need to help ourselves and others reevaluate the instinct to Reply All.

It is really not hard to do. Before you press Send ask yourself 3 simple questions.

  1. Why am I sending this email?
  2. Why am I sending this email to the people I am sending it to?
  3. What do I want them to do when they get it?

If you do not know why you are sending the email – then do not send it. Often, a simple walk down the corridor or a quick ring on the phone can save many unnecessary emails.

If you do not know why you are sending it to all the people you are sending it to – then do not send it to them. I am not impressed by an email that should not come to me. I do not read them. I delete them. You are not impressing anyone with an email that is not really meant for them.

Finally, think about what you want your email to achieve. If you want something done, then it must appear in the first two sentences of your email. I may never read below that. Emails longer than a page often imply that you haven’t really thought about why you are sending it.

In the end, the convenience of Reply All probably outweighs its misuse. But the misuse is not the button’s fault. Blame the users. We need to have more discipline. We need to think about how, when and what we email.

When we say something to someone and they do not understand what we are saying, we need to find a better way to say it. Email is no different. A colleague’s failure to understand and execute our message often stems from our failure to clearly communicate.

About the Author

NigelDessauNigel Dessau is a nationally award-winning marketing professional with over 25 years of experience leading corporate marketing and communications for several multi-million and billion dollar companies. He began his career by working for IBM, serving customers and partners in the UK. Dessau decided to move to the U.S. following an assignment in New York, where he continued to work for IBM for nine years. Since leaving, Dessau has held senior executive and CMO roles at both private and Fortune 500 companies including StorageTek, Sun Microsystems, AMD, and Stratus Technologies.

Learn more about the 3 Minute Mentor and Become a 21st Century Executive at or and connect with him on Twitter at @3minutementor and @nigeldessau.

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