As I was writing this, it ended up being quite a bit larger than I expected it to be. We can all see the irony here. So here’s the short of it.
Keep most e-mails under 5 sentences, and write them like this:
- Set context (1 sentence)
- Ask direct questions (1–3 questions)
- Don’t be rude
And when replying:
- If it’s an ambiguous e-mail: Paraphrase the request
- Reply effectively (the 5 sentence rule counts)
The long of it
There is a very large chance that if you do anything with computers, you get a lot of email. And if you work on a product, digital or otherwise, that number is amplified by a factor of a gazillion.
Yet, getting an email is a thousand times better than someone taking ownership of your time. The asynchronous nature of email beats the mental burden of someone actually calling you to talk about a subject that makes you have to do a full context switch and reply with something reasonable at runtime. Which most likely then will get deferred into an email. This is where you flip a table.
To boil down the frustrations around email, I see two key problems: volume and ambiguity. Now there are many different places where you can find out about inbox management, how to set up awesome rules, and how to unsubscribe from any and every shitty service you signed up for. So let’s talk about the point of ambiguity.
Let’s set some goals:
- 80% of your e-mail should take up 20% of your time, so you can spend the rest of your time doing your actual job,
- Most emails should not be longer than five sentences, and
- You should make it a challenge to keep it to three.
Think of e-mails as long text messages that should always end in a question or the closing of a loop with gratitude.
The person on the receiving end will then have an actionable task or the ability to defer this actionable task to someone else. Had you send this person a novella to read, they will probably (a) not read it, (b) not give you the response you need, or (c) defer it to someone who will do (a) or (b). In any case, you have probably waste valuable minutes of someone’s day.
Say, I’m emailing my colleague Seth, asking him about this thing I saw that he was working on. Here are two scenario’s to approach that:
- Telling him I saw his work, write a novel that includes all context that I have in my brain for my design problem, and hide my question inside — which will probably not translate well and cause for confusion and more ambiguity, or
- Telling him I saw his work, indicating in a single sentence why I’m interested and asking 1–3 clear questions.
Which one of these would you want to receive?
E-mail takes up time. Communication is hard. More communication creates more ambiguity. Please send shorter e-mails.
P.S. Five sentences includes your signature. Get rid of that thing.
P.P.S. No, images aren’t a hack around the five sentences rule. Stop sending me images in your signatures.
P.P.P.S. Working title was “Stop writing shitty e-mails”
P.P.P.P.S. Chris pointed me to http://five.sentenc.es/, which includes the basic five sentence principle.