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Sending an email to someone who you don’t personally know can feel like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean. Will anyone ever read it? Will they take the time to respond if they see it? Or will they just assume it’s another piece of trash and relegate it to a junk pile, leaving you wondering whether to try again or give up all hope of an answer?
We all know that first impressions count in business, but how do you catch someone’s attention when face-to-face meetings have been replaced by ‘e-introductions’?
The answer, according to experts, can be summed up in one way – brevity, which translates to ‘the concise and exact use of words’. Apparently, the trick to writing the perfect email is keeping your message short and to the point, even if you have multiple points to make.
The problem is that many of us are guilty of digital waffling. According to a survey by the personal assistant app Cue (now defunct), the average worker sends 879 emails per year, which amasses to a staggering 41,638 words. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 166-page novel (to put it into context, The Great Gatsby was 182 pages long).
The question is how many of those words were simply unnecessary, either because the writers were repeating themselves, overemphasising a point or filling space with superfluous gestures of social etiquette (‘I hope you had a great weekend! Wasn’t the weather glorious’).
We might think we’re being polite, but in a culture where time is money, there’s a growing belief that less is more in digital communication.
A study into business communication out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville found that high-status employees tended to write shorter, more curt messages than their lower-ranking employees. This was partly to save time, but also as a sign of their authority. They felt more confident doing away with unnecessary questions and social niceties.
Steve Jobs was famous for his abrupt email manner, even when replying to customers. When an Apple user in Sweden emailed to ask if it was possible to sync his iPhone data with the latest iPad, he was astonished to get a reply from the Apple founder himself. It consisted of a one-word answer: “No”.
To some, brevity taken to this extreme might seem rude, but you could argue that Steve did answer the question. In an age where Twitter limits our word counts and online newspapers break down current affairs into bite-size nuggets, should we be equally economical with our email language?
There’s even a website to help digital ramblers. American web designer Mike Davidson created the site Five Sentences after struggling to read his daily influx of emails. He wanted to keep his email interactions short but didn’t want to cause offence, so Mike decided to create a ‘brevity policy’. Visitors to the website are challenged to make every email they write five sentence or less “regardless of recipient or subject”.
Whether you’re emailing your best friend about her birthday party or your boss about a board meeting, the same five sentence rule applies. The website, which reportedly gets between 15,000 and 20,000 unique visits a month, offers an email signature that users can copy and paste onto the bottom of every email explaining why it may appear abrupt, and encouraging others to join the movement.
When an email is important, write it in a word document before copying and pasting to an email. This gives you the ability to check grammar and use tools such as the thesaurus and dictionary. It also means you’re less likely to hit send before you’re ready. Writing a short, succinct email can take more time than writing a long, rambling tome – but it will have more impact. As the French writer Blaise Pascal once apologised to a colleague he was corresponding with, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”