Saturday, April 30, 2011

Should e-mail be sent as plain text or HTML?

Should e-mail be sent as plain text or HTML?

Most modern e-mail programs allow you to send messages in either plain text or HTML (also known as styled text).

With plain text, there's only one font, no colors, no bold, no italics, no pictures. Just plain ol' text. On the other hand, HTML-formatted messages can contain multiple fonts, bold, italics, colour, pictures and other formatting.

So why do I stick with plain text when I send e-mail? Well, I'm glad you asked. :-)

It comes down to this: there are many reasons not to open e-mail messages that contain HTML; thus, if you send HTML-formatted e-mail it's LESS LIKELY TO BE READ.

Let me explain why I (and many others) filter out most of the HTML-formatted e-mail that I receive:

1.  HTML-formatted e-mail can contain destructive software.

      Destructive software can be embedded within the HTML of the message. For instance, the "Forgotten" worm was written in Visual Basic Script and spread WITHOUT any attachment.

      Instead, the worm code was embedded into the HTML formatted message body.

      Similarly, the "I Love You" worm exploited an ActiveX vulnerability and was executed just by VIEWING or previewing the e-mail message.

      In neither of these cases did you have to open an attachment to be infected. Just viewing the message was enough.

2.  HTML-formatted e-mail often contains porn.

      Porn sites love html e-mail because it allows them to send pictures that they hope will lead to more visitors to their sites.

3.  Viewing HTML-formatted e-mail can lead to more spam.

      (The following explanation is a little technical. Feel free to skip to the next point if it's not your cup of tea.)

      Let's say that a spammer sends you an HTML-formatted e-mail containing a small picture (even a single pixel) that's stored on their server. When you open the message, that picture is fetched from their server.

      Normally, this would only give them your IP address (which they could find by looking in their server's logs), but that's not enough to identify you. A smart spammer, though, will make the URL to the picture something like this:

      The "fbiouwgkxmsyts" part is your e-mail address, but it's encrypted so that you don't recognise what they're doing.

      So, just by VIEWING the message, you've confirmed to the spammer that your e-mail address is valid and currently in use. This makes it much more likely that you'll receive further spam from them and anyone that they sell their mailing list to.

4.  HTML-formatted e-mail is larger and thus slower to download.

For all these reasons, many people dislike receiving HTML- formatted e-mail and thus automatically filter much of it out without reading it.

Of course, if it comes from a friend or colleague that's another matter. My filter's "white list" always lets their mail through.

But if you're sending e-mail to people outside your business or circle of friends then it's more likely to be read if you stick to plain text.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is your e-mail mistaken for spam?

Is your e-mail mistaken for spam?
Tim North,

How many e-mail messages do you receive in a week? How many of these are unsolicited advertising (spam)? If you're anything like me, the answer to both questions is "Too many!"

An unfortunate side effect of this tide of spam is that many people now delete any message that they suspect of being spam without reading it. This means that your e-mail's subject line will make or break you.

A good subject line is vital to prevent your e-mail being inadvertently dismissed as spam by some readers.

It is even more important when you consider the increasing use of rule-based e-mail filters that use very unforgiving software to classify incoming messages as spam or not-spam.

Here then are some simple tips to help you prevent your e-mail being mistaken for spam:

1. Don't use money in the subject line; e.g.

        Can we cut $500 from the budget?

    Many of your readers will have spam filters that kill off anything with a dollar sign in the subject line.

2. Don't include advertising words like best selling, cash, free, guaranteed, make money, opportunity, order, satisfied, saving or special offer.

    Such words are frequently used in spam subject lines. Keep in mind that they can easily sneak through:

        Can we free up some money from the budget?

3. Don't leave the subject field blank. Not only are you failing to capture your reader's attention, but this is a common spammer technique to trick you into opening the message.

4. Don't send work messages from private addresses like or A significant percentage of all spam comes from such addresses.

5. Don't send unsolicited attachments. People have become very wary of them as many are infected with viruses or contain other malicious software.

6. DON'T SHOUT. Don't send a message in which the subject is in full capitals. This is a common sign of spam.

7. Don't use words that may have an inadvertent adult meaning.

8. Ensure that the date is set correctly on your computer as an incorrect or missing date is a common sign of forged e-mail headers -- another common spammer trick.

Armed with these tips, your e-mail should get through every time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is your e-mail private? No!

Is your e-mail private? No!

Summary: This article explains just why you e-mail is not private, may not be sent to the intended recipient and can continue to exist long after you delete it.

Consider the following three claims:

1. Your e-mail is not private.

2. Your e-mail might not be sent to the intended recipient.

3. Your e-mail can continue to exist even after you delete it.

The following article explains the truth of these alarming statements and why you should be concerned if you're sending confidential messages by e-mail.


When you send an e-mail message from computer A to computer B it passes through one or more machines (C, D, E, etc.) on its journey. At each step along the way, an unscrupulous individual with access to the intermediate machine has the opportunity to read -- or even alter -- your e-mail message.

Within a private intranet (i.e. a company network), such privacy violations could occur if:

* IT staff with access to the mail server were unscrupulous;

* unauthorized personnel had access to the mail server (e.g. if someone walked away from the server without logging out); or

* security measures designed to keep hackers out of the mail server were insufficient or were not enforced rigorously.

When e-mail is sent over the Internet (a public network) the risks become notably higher. If you send an e-mail message from Sydney to New York it may pass through half-a-dozen machines on its journey, *each* of which are subject to the risks mentioned above. Thus the hazards accumulate with each extra machine that the message passes through.


Another risk with e-mail is that you really don't know who will receive it. This happens because some people choose to forward (i.e. divert) their e-mail to another person or authorize another person to read it for them. For example, if you send a message to a senior colleague, remember that this person's e-mail might be read by his or her secretary or stand-in. That can be awkward.

I know of a case where a manager sent an e-mail report to his CEO describing a clerical officer's poor performance. The CEO had, unfortunately, forwarded his e-mail to his acting secretary, who that day happened to be (you guessed it) the clerical officer in question. The clerical officer read the critical report, and all manner of morale problems ensued.


A further privacy issue surrounding e-mail involves what happens when you delete an e-mail message. You might expect that deleting an e-mail message removes it irretrievably. This is often not the case though.

In fact, it's a tough job to delete every copy of a piece of e-mail. There are many ways that a "deleted" e-mail message might still be accessible:

1. Daily or weekly backups of the mail server may still contain messages that were subsequently deleted.

2. When you delete an e-mail message, many e-mail programs simply move it to a trash folder, rather than actually deleting it. It's not until you select their "Empty the Trash" command (or similar) that the message is actually deleted.

3. Even after you empty your trash folder, many network-based e-mail programs still archive deleted messages for a period of time before deleting them. During this archival period (30-90 days is typical) the message could be available to unscrupulous or unauthorized individuals.

4. Even after a file is deleted from a computer's hard disk, the information is often still available until that portion of the disk's surface is overwritten with new information. During this period the deleted files could be available to unscrupulous individuals with physical access to the computer.

5. Even if you take steps to avoid all the potential problems above, remember that the e-mail message is probably still available on the PC of the person you sent it to (or who sent it to you).


The moral of this story is clear: e-mail is not a private medium. Don't send messages by e-mail unless you're comfortable assuming that they may be read by people other than the intended recipients.

So next time you go to press that "Send" button, ask yourself "Am I okay with this being seen publicly?" If not, pick up the phone!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Images on web sites: when should they be used?

Images on web sites: when should they be used?
Tim North,

Images are used on web and intranet sites for many reasons: branding, highlighting, navigation, providing supplementary information, division, humor etc. Images consume more space than text, however, and thus take a longer time to download.

On an intranet, this additional time is usually within acceptable limits. On the web, however, where many people are limited to the 4-5 KB/s speed of a modem, images can cause long and frustrating delays.

It follows that we should thus limit the unnecessary use of large images. For example, a page that totals 50 KB (including text and all images) may take over 10 seconds to fully appear when viewed over a modem connection. It should be noted that readers in areas not well served by Internet connections (e.g. rural areas) may experience much longer delays.

Many users express great frustration at such delays, particularly if they judge that the content was not worth the wait.

Here then are some guidelines for the use of images:

  1. When writing for serious-minded, information-seeking readers, we should ensure that all graphics on our pages are relevant to the content. Graphics that add nothing are a waste of time for these readers.

  1. Limit the total content of most pages to no more than 50 KB. Keep in mind that even this much may take over 10 seconds to fully appear.

  1. If you need to include a large image, display a thumbnail-sized image instead, and link this to the larger image with a message such as 'Click to view the full-sized (200 KB) image.'

  1. Minimize the use of animated GIFs (images that endlessly cycle through a short animation.) Not only do these appear garish (and frequently annoying), but they are larger than still images and thus slower to appear.

  1. Photographs will generally be smaller (and look better) if saved in JPG format. Cartoon-like images, will generally be smaller (and look better) if saved in GIF format. PNG (ping) format is superior to both, but has not yet achieved wide acceptance.

  1. Provide ALT text for all non-trivial images; that is, a textual equivalent that is used if the browser does not (or cannot) display the image.

  1. Most images will be more useful if accompanied by a caption. If you can't think of a relevant caption, this may be a sign that you don't need the image.

Armed with these tips, your pages will load quickly and will be well regarded by your visitors.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011



When writing a business proposal, the executive summary is arguably the most important component. You should write it as if the success of the entire proposal rests upon it.


  • If your proposal is one of many (or if time is short), a poor executive summary may mean that it's tossed into the reject pile with the remainder unread.

  • If many people are going to read your proposal, some may read the whole thing, but others may make their decision after reading the executive summary alone.

  • Some personality types like to make quick decisions and see this (wisely or not) as being decisive. These types of people may deliberately choose to concentrate on the summary and only flick through the rest.

  • People who lack the technical or financial knowledge to understand the body of your proposal may make a decision based on the executive summary.

  • Readers might not be prepared to say "yes" to your proposal after reading just the executive summary, but they might be prepared to say "no" on this alone.

So given how important your executive summary is, it's important to set out some guidelines for writing it.


(Note: The "carrot and stick" metaphor refers to creating a situation where you are motivating someone with both a reward and a punishment.)

Your executive summary should briefly point out the severity of the problem facing the client, the dire consequences of not fixing it, the key features of your solution and the key benefits to the client.

By briefly covering these four things in the executive summary, we're setting up a highly effective carrot-and-stick scenario. That is, we:

1.  Show them the problem.

2.  Tell (or remind) them how terrible it is.

3.  Dangle a solution in front of them.

If you do it right, your executive summary can generate great enthusiasm for reading the rest of your proposal.

This is all material that you'll cover again in greater depth in the main body of the proposal, but you should write your executive summary as if the success of the whole proposal depends upon it. It may.


Your executive summary should be understandable by anyone. This is not the place to start sprouting financial and technical gibberish.

Keep in mind that people with widely varying backgrounds may read the executive summary (even if they don't read the rest of the proposal). Write it so they can all understand it. If they want more details, they'll look for them in the body of your report.


Every long proposal (i.e. anything with a title page and a table of contents) needs an executive summary. It's a critical component of your proposal.


It's called a summary for a reason. Don't try to trick people into reading more than they intended by being long winded. A reasonable rule of thumb is as follows:

    Proposal         Executive Summary
    Up to  50 pages     1 to 2 pages
    51 to 100 pages     2 or 3 pages
    Over  100 pages     3 pages

Friday, April 1, 2011

"Which" or "that": Choosing between them made easy

"Which" or "that": Choosing between them made easy
Tim North,

Consider the following sentences. Both are acceptable, but they mean quite different things.

    The books, which have red covers, are new.

    The books that have red covers are new.

The first sentence implies that ALL of the books are new. The second implies that only the RED books are new.

In the first sentence the words "WHICH have red covers" are ADDING information about the books. They're telling you more about the books than you would otherwise have known.

In the second sentence, the words "THAT have red covers" are LIMITING which books we're talking about. Without them, we'd be talking about all the books. With them, we're limited to talking about only the red books.

This distinction leads to a simple rule of thumb for choosing between "which" and "that":

    Use "which" (surrounded by commas) if a group of words     adds information. Use "that" if it limits.

Here's another example just to make that clear:

    Elephants, which have big ears, live in Africa.

    Elephants that have big ears live in Africa.

The first of these sentences wrongly implies that ALL elephants have big ears. (In fact, only African elephants do. Indian elephants have small ears.)

(Ah, you learn the good stuff here don't you?)

The second sentence limits the elephants we're talking about. It thus correctly implies that only African elephants have big ears.