Back in the old days, your signature (or “.sig”) was a statement about who you are – and in some places (such as forums like Slashdot), it’s still used for that purpose. (In a way, it’s like having an electronic bumper sticker!)
Recently though, I’ve been thinking about signatures, and whether or not they were still useful in the context of email – specifically in the context of business emails. I mean, really, when was the last time you actually found someone’s email signature useful?
I’m talking, of course, about those huge, obnoxious, totally unnecessary email signatures that seem to be the norm nowadays. The ones that contain pictures, six different phone numbers, an email address (often a different one than the one in the email itself!), a picture, a long title & company name, colors, pictures, flashing lights… okay, maybe that last one was made up.
I’m much more old-school in my opinion of what a signature should be, mostly in the fact that I don’t think an email signature should have any formatting at all – it should be plain text only. I also think that shorter is better. I think 3-4 lines is about the max you’d want – any longer than that and your signature starts being significantly larger than most of the emails you’re sending!
Really, all your email signature should be is:
- Your name
- Your company name
- Your phone number
Why is that? Because:
- I already have your email address (or else how would I be seeing your email??)
- I already have your web address, by virtue of your email address (we’re talking about “business” signatures here, so I’ll assume you’re not using Gmail or Hotmail or something like that, and that your email address’s domain name is the same as your web site’s domain name)
- If you’ve got other methods of contact (IM, Twitter, blog, whatever), then you can just tell me those in the body of your email. There’s no need to repeat them to every single person you send email to.
- Any flashy graphics or pictures just distracts from your message, and in all likelihood will not look right for at least some people (so why take the chance?)
While some people think of their email signature as being like their business card, I think that comparison is a little off for one major reason: people don’t have to look at your business card every single time you talk to them. On the other hand, they do have to look at your email signature every time you send them an email. So it’s important not to overdo it. After all, “less is more,” and simple is always tasteful.
The alternative – for those that feel that they absolutely must give out all of their contact information at once – is to have a signature you use when you first email someone, and then a smaller signature (or none at all!) for follow-up emails after the fact. The problem with this is that you’ll forget, and eventually you’ll just fall back to sending the big signature to everyone.
I think of an email signature as being like “fine print” – the less of it there is, the better. And conversely, the more of it there is, the more… formal, harsh, corporate, and impersonal your email will sound.
There’s another aspect of email signatures as well – the closing line.
Some people include a closing line in the signature block that their email client auto-attaches to every email – which I find annoying, since every single email from them has the same “yours truly” or whatever attached to it and it sounds like I’m talking to a robot.
People who add closing lines like “yours truly” or “sincerely” tend to come from the world before email – that is, the world of physical letters & correspondence. Email is not a direct replacement for old-fashioned mail (for better or worse), and I think it’s inappropriate to try to “force” things that were meant for a different medium onto email.
Although I do sometimes like to close my emails with outrageously formal and archaic closing lines, just for fun – I have been known to use “I have the honor to remain / Most Sincerely Yours.” But that’s for special occasions, not for everyday use.
Other people will close emails with less formal, more casual phrases, such as “ciao” or “cheers,” perhaps hoping to lend a little “international” flavor to their message. My opinion on these sorts of closing phrases is mixed – they tend to be hit or miss, depending on the context.
For myself, as I’ve said, I’m quite old-school, so my emails end quite simply. If I want to use my name (rare), I’ll simply write:
Often with no closing line at all. As for my signature, that is just my name, company, and phone number. (My personal signature is equally short – just the tagline of my blog, my blog’s address, and a URL to my PGP public key).
In the end, people who try to make their email signature be more than it really is are just deluding themselves and annoying others.
For more on the do’s and don’ts of email signatures, check out these two articles:
UPDATE: It’s worth noting that there are certain sub-industries where you can’t get around the need for an obnoxious email signature – where they may be mandated by law (or almost mandated by law). Take, for example, lawyers in the U.S. They have some of the longest signatures you’ll ever see – full of disclaimers, legal references, and so forth. Ernie the Attorney has a two great posts on these uber-long email signatures over at his blog which is well worth reading – even if you’re not an attorney (but are in an industry that has mandated email signature laws).