We always hear that less is more, and nowhere is that more true than in emails. Whether it’s a note to a colleague or a marketing message aimed at a segment of your mailing list, emails should be pithy rather than verbose, succinct rather than drawn out. You may have a gift for elaboration, but the simple truth is this: long emails are much less likely to get read than short ones.
This phenomenon of users not wanting to read long messages (or long pieces of writing in general) has even acquired its own internet shorthand: tl;dr. It stands for “too long; didn’t read,” and it means that the reader just did not want to invest the time to figure out what a long-winded message was all about. Write too much in an email, and you risk losing your audience.
Plus, it’s often said that top-level managers and other highly successful people never send long emails. Their electronic communications are short, often alarmingly so, and don’t waste time on pleasantries, background information that’s already understood, or any other extraneous details. How can you avoid writing the email equivalent of War and Peace? Here are six tips for keeping your emails short and sweet.
- Make the subject line count. Instead of using something nonspecific like “hey” or, even worse, leaving it blank, take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the subject line to convey important information in a place where it will be noticed. Another perk of using the subject line is that you’re forced to be brief.
- Don’t recap background information. Sometimes it is necessary to give a brief history of events leading up to your email, but often, your recipient probably already knows it. And remember, he or she can always ask for clarification or more details; you can include a quick closing line indicating that you can be contacted with questions.
- Just be direct. Cut the fluff, skip the pleasantries, don’t offer excessive apologies, and get to the point of your message. If you’ve got a question, ask it. If you’ve got an important message to convey, then say it.
- Visibly separate multiple topics in a single email. Big blocks of text can be a drag to read, especially on a screen, and especially on a mobile device. Separating your topics into short paragraphs (or even bullets) makes your email faster to read and more visually scannable, allowing your recipient to quickly see what your big points are.
- Proofread! This is always solid advice, but it’s especially important for emails that are veering into potential tl;dr territory. Read what you’ve written, look for things to cut or condense, and shorten accordingly.
- If you’ve really got a lot to say, do it in person. Email is super convenient, but it’s not always the best way to communicate. So, if you can’t get your message across in, say, five sentences or fewer, walk down the hall to chat or call a meeting. If face-to-face communication isn’t possible, pick up the phone and make a call. Sometimes, an actual conversation is best for getting the response you’re after.
When it comes to sending better emails, it may be best to take a lesson from the minimalists, the haiku masters, and even Abraham Lincoln, whose eloquent Gettysburg Address (you know: “Four score and seven years ago…”) was only 271 words long. If they can concisely convey big thoughts, so can you. Go forth, and embrace brevity! Your recipients may not outright thank you, but you can be assured that they’ll at least read the emails you send them.