7 Rules for Communicating Clearly and Concisely in Email
Written by Leo Babauta 2007-10-05
As email is the prevalent form of communication for many web workers, it’s gotten a lot of attention: how to handle your email, how to empty your inbox, email etiquette, and more.
But perhaps not enough time is spent learning about how to communicate with email. And more specifically, how to communicate clearly and concisely, two crucial aspects of communication that are often overlooked.
How many times have you received a rambling and incoherent email? How many times have you hit “Delete” because you have no idea what the person wants and no time to sort through the long message?
The truth is that people don’t have time for long emails, and they don’t have time to try to find out exactly what you want. You have to tell them, in as short an email as possible.
Misunderstandings are also a problem, because of the nature of email. People are often ambiguous, and their messages are interpreted differently than they intended, leading to a waste of time and energy.
Communicate clearly and concisely with the following rules.
Use the minimum amount of sentences. I’ve been using the 5-sentence rule, but you can use more if needed. The question is: how many sentences are needed to communicate what you’re trying to communicate? Or how few sentences can you get away with. Cut it to that number, and no more. That ensures that you’re not wasting the time of the recipient, and that your email actually gets read (people tend to put off reading longer ones, and might even delete them).
State what you want right away. Don’t write a long introduction, telling your life story, or any story for that matter. People aren’t interested. They just want to know what you want. So state that, in the first sentence. Skip the niceties. Don’t make the recipient wade through 10 paragraphs to find what action is needed for the email.
Write about only one thing. There have been numerous times when I read an email, saw the action needed, and went and did it … only to find out that three other things were also needed to respond to the email. I’ve also responded to the first part of an email and not to others, just because I didn’t have enough time.
If you write about multiple things, with multiple requests, you do two things: 1) make it likely that your email actually won’t be read or acted on; and 2) make it likely that even if it is acted on or responded to, the recipient will only do one of those things.
Instead, stick to one subject, with one request. Once that’s done, you can send a second one, but don’t overwhelm the recipient if at all possible.
Leave out the humor and emotions. These don’t come across well in an email. Even if you use emoticons. There’s just no way to express tone, inflection, etc. … and there’s no way to know if the recipient understands that you’re joking. If you’re communicating in person, you can see that the person didn’t understand the humor, and say, “I was only joking!” But not in email.
So, unless you know the person well, and you know they’ll understand that you’re joking, leave out humor. It’s a risk that you don’t want to take.
Use “If... then” statements. As email is a back-and-forth method of communicating, and it can take a day or more for a response (in some cases), you want to limit the number of times a message has to go back and forth. To do that, use “if … then” statements, anticipating the possible responses to your question.
For example, if you want to know if a person has received a response to an inquiry, instead of asking if they’ve received a response, and then waiting for a reply, and then sending another email based on that reply, try doing it all in one email:
“Have you received a response from Mr. X yet? If so, please finish the report by Tuesday and email it to me. If not, can you follow up today and let me know the response?”
By anticipating the possible responses, and giving a desired action for each possible response, you’re cutting a lot of wasted back-and-forth time.
Review for ambiguity, clarity. Once you’ve written an email, take a few seconds to read over it before pressing the Send button. Read it as if you were an outsider — how clear it it? Are there any ambiguous statements that could be interpreted the wrong way? If so, clarify.
Revise for conciseness. As you review, also see if there is a way you can shorten the email, remove words or sentences or even paragraphs. Leave nothing but the essential message you’re trying to communicate.
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