Fast Company

TED's Chris Anderson Is The Moses Of Email Overflow

The walking idea machine is hoping the citizens of the Internet will adopt his new 10 Commandments for solving this growing--and growing!--problem. Fast Company spoke with Anderson (not by email) to learn more.

The man who pioneered "ideas worth sharing," TED's Chris Anderson, is on a crusade to quash the frivolous emails that are taking up more and more of our limited time. "A lot of people have experienced a relentless increase in what's in the inbox," says Anderson. To fight back, he hopes to inspire a new digital etiquette, his "Email Charter" of rules to thin overflowing inboxes. Rules range from writing "no need to reply," at the end of an email to limiting open-ended statements, like: "How can I help?"

The core philosophy driving the charter is to "put in a set of rules that ensures it's faster to process an email, on average, than it is to create it." Anderson argues that verbose emails are often the product of insufficient thought--following the old adage attributed to Mark Twain when he once apologized to a recipient, writing, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." More thoughtful emails will be shorter and more organized, and, hence, easier to respond to.

Anderson is not the first to try spreading an email norm. Noted tech icon, Kevin Rose, once advocated a three-sentence maximum, with the help of three.sentences.es, which appendeds a simple Q&A signature at the end of each email to explain why the message appears curt.

Q: Why is this email three sentences or less?

A: http://three.sentenc.es

But Anderson's role as a leader in "spreading ideas" has attracted some influential attention, including this recent tweet by Twitter powerhouse, Ashton Kutcher:

Placing emailcharter.org in the signature is an important part of the mission, he argues, because it'll explain "why you're being a jerk."

Indeed, the charter's biggest challenge might be getting past the perception that curt or delayed emails are "rude." Professor Judy Olson, an expert on distance-based communication and trust, at the University of California, Irvine, finds that people often misattribute delays in text-based communication as the sender not caring about them.

"If you don't know the remote person well, when he/she doesn't respond in a timely way, you attribute that behavior negatively--they must not like me, or they're not giving me priority I deserve," she writes to Fast Company (yes, in an email). "Yet, its just as likely that you misspelled their email, they're on vacation, [or] something came up."

In face-to-face communication, it's obvious what circumstances may led someone to delay a response (they're thinking, they had an emergency phone call, etc.). Over email, SMS, or chat, those situational and facial cues aren't present, and we are left to ruminate over all the reasons why someone might not care about us.

Not all of Anderson's rules are terribly ambitious--some are just simple tips. Rule #7, "Attack Attachments," shames brand-happy users from including company logos or download-intensive graphics in their emails, which forces reluctant users to sift through the barrage of images for the actual message. Another, "Slash the CC's," begs senders to leave tangential parties out of the conversation.

Perhaps the most concrete is #8, two acronyms, EOM (end of message) and NNTR (no need to respond). EOM can be placed directly in email subjects, like "how is dinner at 5:30? (EOM)," preventing the need to even having to open the message.

The ultimate solution may come from both norms and technological devices. Google's "Priority Inbox" automatically separates emails based on who they are addressed to, if the content appears to be a mass mailing, and if there is frequent contact between the recipient and the sender--a process that attempts to become more accurate over time. So, at the very least, the most important emails can be responded to first, and the rest can be casually dealt with while watching TV.

Less tolerant approaches, like the newly released Shortmail, actually rejects messages longer than 500 characters, bouncing a polite response to verbose senders.

Still, Anderson argues, many of these time-intensive emails are coming from "your friends or colleagues," which would slip past these brute-force tech solutions. So, he's hoping that "it will succeed if there is a critical mass of people out there who share this kind of frustration."

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user killthebird]

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6 Comments

  • Mike Zeller

    Being brief inspires others to be brief as well, especially if they just wrote you a long response, they'll take the not so subtle hint.

    Services like YouMail help reduce the general communication overload.  I often email the YouMail transcriptions of VM responses to clients or constituents.  

  • Levi Smith

    I like where Chris is going with this. Email has become the garbage dump of communications. Challenging people to be more purposeful and thoughtful will help us all. I recently wrote a short post on some things we're doing at my company to reduce the email burden: 7 hours/week email challenge http://bit.ly/ktUAO6

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Brilliant. To this I would add, for the reader,

    1> Use the delete key liberally and brutally.
    2> Set up deliberate times of day to handle email, and then respect that. If it's an emergency, they should call you. Every interaction is training the other what to expect, don't promise instant responses  
    3> Don't use your email inbox as a task list. If you can't respond to something immiedately, make a note on your task list so you remember
    4> Unsubscribe from as many lists as you can.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach to Creative Leaders
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com