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Mastering the Short Email

Mastering the Short Email

Mastering the Short Email

    “I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short”

    — BLAISE PASCAL

    Good writers know that lean, vibrant language is almost always preferable to verbose, rambling writing. There is virtually no writing in the world so good that it can’t be made better by making it shorter. There are exceptions, of course – a contract needs to cover every possible potentiality, as does the text of an international treaty, but these documents are not really meant to be read, they’re meant to be enacted.

    When you send email, though, you most definitely mean for it to be read. By a person, even. With everyone’s inboxes bulging at the seams with unwanted come-ons, weekly newsletters, Amazon notices telling them about the latest product that people who bought whatever they bought also bought, status updates, listserv posts, and who knows what else, you face an awful lot of competition in your recipient’s inbox for their attention.Getting read is no small feat in and of itself; getting your reader to take action even a greater accomplishment.

    Writing well is one key – good prose is engaging and persuasive, no matter what the aim. And writing concisely is a big part of writing well. But writing concisely offers benefits on its own – the short email, particularly the email whose contents fit into the preview pane without any scrolling, has a much higher chance of gaining a reader’s attention than one that starts off with three pages about trivia.

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    This is what Mike Davidson figured out – if his recipients were half as slammed as he was, he figured they could use some relief from long-winded emails that ramble on and on in the guise of pleasantries. Instead, he committed himself to writing emails that were five sentences or less, every single time. To explain his decision, and to encourage others to follow suit, he created the site five.sentenc.es, which explains:

    The Problem

    E-mail takes too long to respond to, resulting in continuous inbox overflow for those who receive a lot of it.

    The Solution

    Treat all email responses like SMS text messages, using a set number of letters per response. Since it’s too hard to count letters, we count sentences instead.

    five.sentenc.es is a personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be five sentences or less. It’s that simple.

    You add the link to your email signature, dash off your five-sentence response, and let your recipient know that you are looking out for his or her time. (For the really daring, Davidson set up domains with even fewer sentences, down to two.sentence.es.)

    That’s all well and good, of course, but how can you make sure you say what you need to say if you limit yourself to five sentences? (Or even if you make the less-radical commitment to just write as short an email as possible?) You don’t want to leave anything out, right?

    Unfortunately, concision isn’t really taught or, to be honest, valued sufficiently. The huge novel is seen as more significant than the slim novella, the fat envelope more important than the thin one, the 10-page essay as more A-worthy than the 5-page essay. Teachers actually encourage wordiness, giving students instructions to write papers “at least” 500 words long, or 6 pages, instead of encouraging the shortest possible length in which you can fully express your thoughts.

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    Fortunately, super-entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki has offered a good guide to the five-sentence email (scroll down to point #9). He says,

    Whether UR young or old, the point is that the optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.

    (Don’t ask me what purpose the seemingly out-of-place IM-speak serves there – let’s just chalk it up to 5 saved keystrokes.)

    If we take Kawasaki’s advice to heart, a good outline for a five-sentence email might look something like this:

    1. Who are you? This might be skipped if you already have a relationship with the recipient; otherwise, in as little space as possible, explain the relevant facts about yourself.
    2. What do you want? Explain why you’re writing the email, what you expect your recipient to do about it, and any relevant information they need to respond with the appropriate action.
    3. Why should you get it? Or, more to the point, why should they bother? Explain why your request is important, and if relevant, what’s in it for them.
    4. When do you need them to act? Open-ended requests get open-ended responses – that is, they get responded to whenever the recipient gets around to it. Be as specific as possible, so that your recipient a) has a sense of urgency, b) feels that their response is important to you, and c) feels inspired to act.

    So, for example, emailing a professor to ask for an extension on an essay (that must be at least 10 pages long…) might look something like this:

    Professor Wax,

    I’m a student in your Thursday afternoon anthropology class, and I’m having some trouble finding enough references for my term paper. Could you please give me an extra week to complete the assignment? I realize this might affect my grade, but I really want to give you the best paper I can, not just 10 pages of filler to make up for the missing information. Please get back to me by tomorrow morning so I can plan my writing schedule.

    Thanks,

    Ace Tuden

    Or an email to a colleague asking for data you need to finish a report might look like this:

    Dustin,

    I’m working on the report for our proposal to Acme, Inc. and really need the figures from the marketing analysis you ran. Could you get those to me by the end of the day so I can wrap this up? As you know, this report is crucial if we want to land that co-branding deal with Acme!

    Best,

    Emma Ployee

    Notice that both of those examples are less than five sentences – the point isn’t to shoehorn your work into a particular format but to write as little as you need to get the point across.

    Sometimes, of course, that means writing more than five sentences. Kawasaki’s advice presupposes that most email is requesting some kind of information, but that’s not always the case. But if you force yourself to think in terms of a five sentence email, and you go over a sentence or two, you will be far more effective than if you dash off a 2,000-word treatise.

    While emails are technically just text, just writing, and therefore could theoretically be as long as you care to make them, in reality longer emails are more likely to go unread , and less likely to be read carefully, as short ones. If more information is needed, a formal report, a webpage, a memo, or some other form of document is probably going to be better-suited to presenting it than an email. Send an attachment, send a link, or schedule a face-to-face meeting if necessary; don’t blast off a giant email that takes you hours to write in the vain hope that it will be read.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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