18 Comments

Summary:

It sounds great, right? Cut your email replies down to a couple of sentences and everything’s peachy: you’ll plow through that inbox super-fast and be able to get onto the work that you have to do a whole lot sooner. Productivity will soar! Or will it?

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Not that long ago, shorter email hit the radars of many web workers. The site two.sentenc.es suggests that, since email takes so long to respond to, we should consider cutting our responses down to two sentences.

There are sites at three.sentenc.es, four.sentenc.es, and five.sentenc.es that provide similar advice for those who feel that two sentences might be cutting things a bit fine (pun wholly intended).

The idea is that, whatever number we choose, we can apply the philosophy to every email we send. The sites even provide explanatory text that we can paste into our email signatures, presumably so recipients know what’s going on, and can find out more if they want to.

It sounds great, right? Cut your email replies down to a couple of sentences and everything’s peachy: you’ll plow through that inbox super-fast and be able to get onto the real work that you have to do a whole lot sooner. Productivity will soar! At the very least, email won’t be such an enormous burden…

Shorter Email in Action

Recently, I had an issue that I needed to raise with a client. I wrote him an email explaining what the problem was, why it was a problem, and proposing some interim solutions. My email wasn’t short — it totaled 350 words, including salutation and signoff.

In reply, my client sent me two short sentences. Each sentence responded to a single point I’d made in my email — his response overlooked basically all the information I’d included and the questions I’d asked. Since I work remotely, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. Had he misinterpreted what I’d written? Should I reply and reiterate my concerns more clearly? Should I tie him up on IM or the phone trying to get answers to the questions I’d asked? His email certainly seemed dismissive; I didn’t feel very confident about raising these issues again.

Later, I discovered he was applying the two.sentence.es philosophy to his email. Had he included this link in his email signature, and had I seen it, I probably would have been more perturbed than relieved. Why? Because I still needed answers, and didn’t know if or how I was going to get them.

Shorter Email Shortfalls

Will shorter emails really save you time?

Many of us aren’t born editors, or even born writers. If you’re not adept with language, shortening your email replies may actually take more time as you select the key point in the sender’s message that you’re going to address and then try to compose a reply in two (or three, or five) short sentences.

By failing to address all the points that the sender has raised, you’ll likely prompt a phone call, IM or subsequent email exchange, so perhaps you’re simply swapping the time you used to spend responding to email to time spent on the phone.

But these nitty-gritty details ignore the elephant in this discussion: clear communication. Shorter doesn’t necessarily mean clearer or better. If you’re managing a remote team or collaborating with distant colleagues, communication via basic means like email is often crucial to harmony as well as actually getting the work done.

When my contact failed to even acknowledge the issues I’d raised about his project at the start of the engagement, I began to wonder what kind of project manager he was going to turn out to be, and where this project was ultimately headed. That kind of contractor discomfort is undoubtedly not the kind of feeling any of us want to engender at project kick-off. At best, it will take time to ameliorate. At worst, valuable team relationships could be undermined.

Shorter Email … Where Appropriate

I’m all for shorter email, and there are undoubtedly times when we can reply effectively with a few well-chosen sentences. We all have particularly wordy contacts who like to write email-essays every time they send something through to us. But in my work, I expect there will always be emails — or colleagues — that warrant more than a few sentences.

Applying productivity tips or advice across the board in your work, without adaptation to your circumstances or needs, may do more harm than good. Has a productivity philosophy or technique ever let you down?

Image by stock.xchng user statianzo.

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  1. Few things are more frustrating than not getting a proper answer to your questions, especially from clients who want it yesterday. I often find that getting the client on the phone is more challenging than an email reply. So, when I have their attention (email or phone)I need to make the most of it.

    I don’t like sending long emails from my phone unless absolutely necessary so those are usually short, something like…”Will answer with detail shortly…” Of course, my client is thinking, “Oh no, here she goes again!” :-)

    Thanks for the good advice.

  2. 100% agree – writing shorter emails often provides less information and will mean taking longer in the next rounds of conversation. It’ll probably also frustrate the person you’re communicating with. Taking the time to read and respond to emails will more likely shorten the total conversation and the work you need to do (because goals/scope will be clear from the start).

  3. I try to keep most of my emails under the five sentence line but really, as you stated, the goal is good communication. If you are trying to sell something to a client or explaining a complex procedure, you may need several pages rather than several sentences. If you need more words, split them up so they are easier for the reader to find the main points. Perhaps 3-5 sentences per paragraph or thought is a better metric.

    I did have a time when I went back and forth over 8-10 emails with someone but it was primarily a difference of opinion, not a lack of understanding due to short emails.

  4. I would suggest rewriting your 350 word email into two sentence morsels and then send each of those in separate emails to your recipient. I’m sure receiving 20 two sentence emails would be much more in-line with what your recipient would like rather than the bloated email you were sending before.

    Or alternatively, albeit cheating a little, throw grammar out the window and make the entire 350 words into just two sentences (or just one).

    Both options sound good to me :)

  5. Heck I number my questions and people still screw up or skip over something. Easy stuff, like “do you like red or blue?” and I get back “Okay.”….

    I prefer phone calls for long topics or to circumvent painful emails.

    Also I always say “Thank you”, not the short “Thanks”. It has 2 extra letters; I respect people more that are willing to take the extra ounce of time to type that out.

  6. You’re right, Shorter email replying techniques like (two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es) should only be applied judiciously, without hurting your partners or clients. I use a cool email management solution http://www.taroby.com which lets me manage my emails, IMs, snail mails and much more from one place. Do check it out!

  7. I guess we can’t all be like General Ulysses Grant, writing concise, perfect messages, but it still staggers me that people don’t understand how to communicate via email – frequently too long is an issue, but what really grates me is when vital information is buried.

    When you read email, you’re not actually working – you’re just reading – so get to the point. But this 2-3-4-5 sentenc.es philosophy is dumb. Say what you got to say concisely but don’t be an idiot and write bad short emails either.

    It’s time for a new business communication solution. Companies like Cohuman, Manymoon and Huddle are tackling this… why can’t people, like this project manager you talk about, who are obviously looking to change the way they interact with email, look for an alternative to email altogether?

  8. “Should I tie him up on IM or the phone trying to get answers to the questions I’d asked?”

    Yes. It’s just a matter of getting over the assumption that using IM or the telephone is “typing him up”. Email is great for documentation, but terrible (or at least inefficient) for collaboration and interaction.

    I’m of the “long email = phone call” school. I haven’t seen any evidence that people actually read long emails in sufficient detail, so I’d rather not waste time composing them and having multiple clarifying exchanges that could’ve been ironed out over the phone in a single 5-minute call.

    “If you’re not adept with language, shortening your email replies may actually take more time as you select the key point in the sender’s message that you’re going to address and then try to compose a reply in two (or three, or five) short sentences.”

    All the more reason why certain people should pick up the phone instead of imposing their lack of composition skills on others. The converse is equally true: if you’re an introvert who has trouble thinking out loud, save others the rambling and put your finished thoughts in a concise email.

    People put way too much responsibility on the recipient to read their email as thoroughly as senders would like. We’re all important to ourselves, but to the other person, your email is just one of dozens in their inbox that they have to get through.

  9. One question per message; length of message isn’t critical.

    If they reply to your message by typing *above* your quoted original (the Microsoft standard form), then your best bet is to have only one question per email.

    Alternatively, if your correspondent can weave responses within your quoted original you can write encyclopedia articles with joyous abandon.

    Otherwise, one question per email, maximum. (See how I repeat myself? Crucial.)

  10. Georgina Laidlaw Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Hey everyone,
    Thanks for the very interesting comments. One thing I thought I should raise is the question of timezones, which can toss another spanner in the works of those trying to communicate via email.

    One thing that’s coming across loud and clear here is the way people see email — I get the impression that each person who’s commented here sees different causes for emailing, calling, IMing, etc. We see these tools as often serving different purposes. Perhaps, as Andre suggests, we should stop seeing any of them as “tying up” our contacts; although, paradoxically, this suggestion is inherent in the shorter email philosophy.

  11. I am naturally a verbose email-writer, and I had to learn that most recipients of my LONG emails will not read them, let alone skim them, so I’ve had to figure out how to deal with this.

    1) I keep it as short as possible. That’s not saying it’s X words, or X sentences. But it’s as short as I can make it and still get everything done.

    2) I apply lessons from “web scan-ability” to my emails. I use bold and colored fonts to draw the eye to the one thing I need the most, I use bullets and numbers for questions and details, and I keep my paragraphs short and tight.

  12. My experience has been that people do not read long email and those that do read them, do not respond as I need or expect. However, there are time when a long email is appropriate. If I need to send a long email, I tell them I am going to send it. When I send it, I put “Response required” and “Long/Detailed” in the subject line. If they do not respond in a timely manner I call or send a short email telling them I really need a response and cannot move forward until I get a response. These steps are the only thing I have found that works for getting responses to email.

  13. Good points in your article.

    On the opposite end, there are also plenty of emails that could convey the entire message, such as “Got it” “Thanks” “Yes, I’ll be there at 7pm tonight” that could be contained in the email’s subject line. This is where NNTOOR comes in.

    “NNTOOR”is an acronym meaning “No Need To Open Or Respond” as a courtesy for the email recipient..

    In other words:

    1. The email’s subject line contains all of the info the email message seeks to convey

    2. There’s no need for you to open it

    3. There’s no need for you to respond to the email, though you are of course welcome to if that is your preference.

    4. The NNTOOR sender is demonstrating respect for the recipient’s time and seeks to make email communication more efficient.

    Side benefit: If widely adopted, a person receiving email on mobile device could zip through 10-25% of emails without opening them and also avoid the awkward and time-wasting reply.

    Website (not a business – just information about this free idea): http://nntoor.org/nntoor-info

  14. I think the last line of the article sums it up. Applying any rule across the board will never work. Emails should be as clear and concise as possible, but imposing an arbitrary limit isn’t the way to go.

    Skim value, in my opinion, is the most important factor. Some messages are easy to communicate in 2-3 short sentences. Others take a paragraph, or several paragraphs. When this is the case, it’s critical to make the key points clearly stand out so that the reader can quickly and easily get to your point. I’m also big on bullets when you have several questions or points to communicate.

    I also have to agree with the long email = phone call approach. If you can’t get your point across clearly or if you anticipate that you’ll need to clarify your message, just get on the phone. Spend five minutes talking it through and get to work instead of waiting for an email reply, responding, waiting, etc.

  15. smartpeoplecommunications Friday, October 22, 2010

    You refer to swapping time spent in e-mail for time spent on the phone, but the truth is that real-time communication is often faster altogether — and it has other benefits, such as relationship-building, as well. Overall, it’s important to remember that e-mail isn’t the only way to communicate, and stuffing everything we know into somebody else’s inbox isn’t always the best way to work.

    Still, as you say, shorter doesn’t automatically mean clearer or better — and clearer, better communication all around is the real goal.

  16. Email communication shouldn’t be the ONLY communication. Many people rely solely on it. Pick up the phone. Walk over to their desk if you can. If you have to email, keep it short and to the point. Pull out your feelings and state the facts, bulletting out the action items.

    Great article!

    Kirk Baumann
    Campus To Career
    http://www.campus-to-career.com

  17. I think it depends who you are contacting. I find that the busier a person is, the shorter the e-mail needs to be. They don’t have time to respond to long e-mails and if they see yours is too long, the chances of them getting back to you are even less. It also helps to address only one issue per e-mail. A lot of times if it’s more than that, you won’t get your questions answered.

  18. I, too, tend to be a bit verbose in my emails and am annoyed when I get a single response to a multi-question message. The frequent offenders are usually reading/replying on mobile devices.

    My two tips:

    Good use of white space
    and
    Recapping questions as bullet points at the end of the message

    Both tend to improve the reply.

    I avoid fancy colors, “stationary”, and fonts because mobile devices and certain email systems seem to have troubles with anything other than plain text. (In fact, we’ll see if this comment has the white space removed once I press SUBMIT)

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