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7 Rules for Communicating Clearly and Concisely in Email

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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.

1. 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).

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

20 Responses to “7 Rules for Communicating Clearly and Concisely in Email”

  1. My comments:

    a) Use the minimum amount of sentences. True and try to use bullets were make sense to be schematic
    b) State what you want right away. Email is not (only) an exercise of style. Is communication with no escapes, since no facial or hands expression help to clarify your thoughts. So c) go to the point as fast as you can
    d) Write about only one thing. True. This also helps recipients to answer one thing a time
    e) Leave out the humor and emotions. True, because recipients read the messages as they are, and you’re not there to explain is a joke.
    f) Use “If …then” statements. Is part of being schematic
    g) Review for ambiguity, clarity. Revise for conciseness. Review always the message and if you can )and the message is really important) save it as a draft and come back later

  2. At first it might seem like the advice is too “concise” as some comments suggest. However, by keeping the emails short, to the point and actionable, you actually have more room for your personality (humor) to be noticed. And on top of re-reading, make sure to check who you are actually sending the email to. Too often private comments get “replied to all” which can have negative reactions.

  3. This is one of the most stupid posts I have read in, say, 5 years. It’s kind of encouraging people to write like a telegraph. No emotions ? no humor ? minimum amount of sentencies ? IF .. THEN .. ELSE STATEMENTS ?!??! Oh man… writting is not programming code. Even in e-mails.

    Take a vacation!

  4. Hi, very intuitive and illustrative, also exposes some common sense ideas.

    I like specially the 4th rule: (…) there’s no way to know if the recipient understands that you’re joking.


  5. Awesome. Could you please address chatting up people at work, on the street and in the grocery store? Yadayadayada happens EVERYWHERE! I think that with few modifications this is fairly good advice for all communication that doesn’t take place with a drink in your hand.

  6. Also, in my openion, you should have some thing to make the e-mail seen coming from you at the first glance itself. Write your name ect in the smae way always,have the standard form of greeting and have special signature and way of signing off.

  7. #6 & #7 are very important, as you’re trying to get information from busy people. I know I’m always frustrated when I kinda get was somebody is asking, but I have to reread 4 times to make sure

    Typically break my emails for clients down in the following format, and it works great

    intro text (I’m going to ask you “x” question, and have need you to do “y” things (agree this should be no longer than 5 sentences)

    background (if necessary to help them understand why I have questions, and why I need responses

    QUESTIONS (using the if else policy)
    1. Question
    2. Question

    1. Ask
    2. Ask

    nicety at the end, or questions about their weekend

  8. Excellent information.
    One other point I would like to see is if you are making multiple points in an e-mail or paragraph breaks or bullets can make an e-mail much easier to read and will help avoid the problems of missing items.

    I think the theme of being clear and concise is something that should not only be apart of your e-mail communication but should be apart of any communication written or oral.

  9. What we need is a little creative superfluousness or something like that. Bloody hell, break out of the slave shacks and express. We need you and your imaginations. Not all the dry coercive corp speak. Fight back, the bastards only want words that play to bottom lines. Fight the new dictatorship, fight.

    Words are our most creative commonality. Don’t let suits and ties, black socks and pink shirts and proper skirts destroy our heritage. Rebel, Let them take the money and throw it to the bottom of the sea. Your spirits will soar, you will see.

    Thank You

  10. You are exactly on target. #6 strikes me as especially important, since few people are in the habit of proofreading what they write. Result – lots of confusion and wasted time for sender and receiver.

  11. I have to say it: please, try to dispense with all these articles that are just hackneyed lists. They’re killing me.

    And, if you write about how to write (in this case e-mail messages), please write well:

    1. Minimum “number” of sentences, not minimum “amount.”

    2. Active voice – please – this blog basks in passive voice.

    3. A little thought about capitalization – we (Americans) capitalize everything. “… Send button …” makes no sense. Since when is “Send” a proper noun and what a weird choice to capitalize send but not button. Most things don’t get capitalized.

    And, please don’t discourage the few “niceties” that still exist in professional communication. Saying “I hope this note finds you well” at the start of a message doesn’t diminish productivity (unless the person is an idiot). Poorly written notes do that, inane notes do that, long notes do that. Think – a few pleasant words might actually warm up your audience, soften the blow of bad news, or even just hearken to the days when we weren’t all single-syllable corporate jarheads.

    I’ve broken my last suggestion, being nice, but this blog has finally pushed me to the brink.

  12. Excellent tips. I think that in the past I have tended to ask too many questions in emails, which results in only the first one or two getting answered.

    Also, I find that when trying to find get information, the clearer you can make make your question, the better. When possible, I try to make questions multiple choice, so that the recipient knows their options. For example…

    “Is the reason this project is taking so long due to lack of client input, technical difficulties, or something else?”

    At least that generally works for me.

  13. Good tips. I don’t know how many times I have started to write an email only to realize later that I probably shouldn’t be writing it due to how poorly thought-out it was. I usually stop writing and revisit it later when, hopefully, my thought will be better thought-out.