At my organization we regularly email Microsoft Word documents to one
another as attachments. Meeting minutes, agendas, summaries, pretty much
anything other than really short messages get written in Word, and then sent as
I recently had someone from outside the organization claim that this was a
really bad idea. He was quite adamant that we should be doing that as little as
possible. He claimed that there were so many reasons he couldn’t list them
Yes. Yes I can. It’s something I feel fairly strongly about. So strongly,
that I’m often that “someone from outside the organization”.
Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Word has it’s place. But 9 times out of 10
that place is not as an attachment to email.
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Let me first be clear: I know that a lot of folks use Word as their email
editor in Microsoft Outlook. It’s a simple setting, and while I also believe
it’s the wrong thing to do for many of the same reasons listed below, that’s
actually not what I’m talking about here. The scenario that causes the worst
problems looks like this: you write a message in Word, you save that message to
disk, and you then attach that resulting Word “.doc” document to an email which
you then send to someone.
Word is a wonderful word-processing program. I use it myself, probably
daily. It’s feature rich (perhaps too much so), incredibly powerful, and
absolutely the right tool for creating good looking printed documents.
Unfortunately it’s too easy to come to rely on Word for everything. Even
things that it’s not well suited for. Like email.
Here’s why Word attachments are bad:
Your recipient may not have Word, or a program that can read Word documents.
I often read email on my cell phone, and Word documents are promptly ignored.
With handheld devices such as Treo’s or Blackberry’s becoming more and more
connected, this is an increasingly frequent occurrence.
Your recipient may not be able to open the attachment. Due to the
proliferation of viruses in Word documents, many mail programs don’t allow Word
documents to be opened directly, or in some cases, even saved to disk. Yes,
there are ways around it, but many recipients don’t know how, or are
uninterested in taking the time to figure out how. Besides, why put up an
additional barrier when you don’t need to?
Your recipient may never get the message. Email with attachments,
particularly Word documents, are more likely to be filtered as spam or as a
potential virus, even if they are neither. Avoiding attachments helps stack
some of the odds in your favor.
The message will be significantly larger than it needs to be. Word documents
are big. Often much bigger than the message they contain. The previous
paragraph, a little over 40 words or around 250 characters resulted in a Word
document over 20,000 bytes in size. Why do we care about size? Ever had your
hard disk run out of room? By sending around oversized documents you’re forcing
that on your recipients as well. And, larger emails take longer to deliver,
slow down networks and generally waste communications resources on the
The message will be significantly slower to open. You don’t know what kind
of machine your recipient has. Word is a big program. Requiring that
your recipient open and run this large application in order to view your
message is just another barrier to getting your message read.
You run the risk of unintentional leaks of information. When “Fast Save” is
enabled in Word, deleted information is not necessarily deleted from the
document, it’s merely marked as “don’t show this”. Using very simple tools that
previously deleted information possibly including old comments, notes and prior
revisions, is easily accessible to anyone.
Word’s formatting abilities, while also making the document even bigger, are
often used in ways that detract from the message. Keep your message simple, and
you’ll stand a much better of getting your message across.
So what’s the right thing to do?
9 times out of 10 the right thing to do is to simply put your message into
the email body directly. Don’t involve Word at all. Don’t get fancy, don’t go
nuts with formatting or tables or pictures … just say what needs saying and
A smaller , faster message is much more likely to be delivered and read than
a bloated, slow attachment in Word. It’s that simple. And I’m not even talking
about making your message smaller, say using fewer words (though that’s good
too). I’m simply talking about the tools used to contain your message.
When is Word called for?
In my opinion, Word is only called for when you are actually working on a
document. When you are, perhaps, collaborating on a document, or passing a
document around to be read or reviewed. If you’ve written a report that will at
some point be printed or published in some form, a Word document might be
appropriate. If your message requires a very formal presentation (most
do not), or it requires features or functionality found in Word (most
do not), then Word might be called for.
But if your message is only going to live or be viewed primarily in email –
then there’s simply no reason to drag an application such as Word into the
In fact, there’s every reason to avoid it.
I will throw out one last caveat: in some organizations, culture may dictate
what you need to do. If that culture is “send everything in Word”, I naturally
encourage you to work to change that culture if you can. Some organizations
give you no choice. Certain types of communication require certain forms. In
these cases, you’re pretty much out of luck.
The good news is that while everything I’ve said still applies, problems are
slightly less when the email stays within an organization. However
once you send outside of your organization and across the internet, then these
issues are of particular importance.