‘If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.’ ~David Belasco
Post written by Leo Babauta.
One of the worst problems I’ve seen when people send me emails is amazingly common: they’re way too long.
I’m a fairly busy guy, but who isn’t busy? I try to be responsive but when I get an incredibly long email there is no way I’ll answer quickly. If an email is short, I’ll shoot out a reply as soon as I read it.
So why send long emails?
Here’s a rule: a long email is never necessary. Never.
Why am I writing this? Is it a rant against people who’ve emailed me? No, it’s a general problem that I’ve seen with email, and I hope this will help people write more effectively.
How I Use Email
I’ve written before about how I ditched email. That’s only 90% true. I still do email on a limited scope — mostly for people I collaborate with (partners, designers, printers, etc.). I also respond to customer emails (refunds, download problems).
For reader feedback and comments, I use Twitter. For family communication (like my family on Guam and other parts of the world), I use Facebook (I don’t “friend” anyone other than family, and have fewer than 100 friends on FB).
That said, my email problem isn’t unique to my situation. No matter how you use email, no one you’re emailing wants to read a long essay or respond to 10 questions. We are all busy, and we all value our time.
When I do email, I try to get through all of it quickly. I don’t like to be stuck doing email all day, so I get in, read and respond or archive/trash, and get out.
When someone sends me a long email, it’s likely to be archived. If I absolutely have to respond, I probably won’t do it that day.
Please note: this post is not just about me. It’s about anyone who is busy and who values his or her time. If you send that person a long email, you are saying you don’t value his time, and you’re saying you haven’t thought out what’s important. And you’re decreasing your odds of getting a response.
Why Long Emails Suck
A few brief reasons:
- It takes too long to read. I don’t have a lot of time to read, and by sending me an essay you are saying your email is more important than the other things I have to read.
- It doesn’t respect my time. When you send me an email, you’re making a request on my time (to read, process, respond). If you send a long email, you haven’t edited. You haven’t decided what’s most important. You are saying, in effect, that I have to do that instead. You’re sending a message that your time is more important than mine.
- You don’t get to the point. What’s the main point you’re trying to make? What’s your main question? Spit it out, or it will get buried.
- You ask too many questions. I won’t be able to answer all of them without half an hour of my valuable day. So don’t ask so many — just ask one or two.
- I won’t respond. If you’re looking for me to read the email right away, or worse yet, do something for you, good luck with that. I’m not a diva, but I also have things to do and can’t get to every long email. And there are many of them, not just yours.
Rules for Short, Effective Emails
Ignore these rules at your peril:
- Keep it to 5 sentences. No more. I stole this from five.sentenc.es of course, but I’ve used it for years and it works. I usually try to do fewer than 5.
- Figure out your main point. If you think you need more than 5 sentences, you haven’t figured out the key thing you want to say. Take a second to figure it out, and stick to just that.
- Ask one thing. Don’t ask 10 questions, just ask one. Or two at the most. You’re much more likely to get an answer quickly.
- Edit. If you stretched it to 8 sentences, cut out 3.
- Link. If you need to refer to info, include a link to it on the web.
- Post it. If the info you need to share isn’t on the web, put it there. Create a long answer or long background document (then edit it to the essential info) and post it online. Use your blog, or one of the many free tools for posting info. Create an FAQ if it’s useful. Link to it in your email.
This post, by the way, is an example of the last rule.