Why Every Email Should Be 5 Sentences Long

If your message is too short you'll sound abrupt. If it's too long no one will read it. Here's why five sentences is the just-right length.

"Proper email is a balance between politeness and succinctness," entrepreneur-investor-author Guy Kawasaki tells Entrepreneur.com. "Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time."

In this way, the email is like poem. A sonnet maybe, with the way its limitations have a funny way of granting freedom. Or maybe an epic poem, given the fact that we all write a novel's worth of email every year. But would a missive by any other length read just as sweet?

Not likely, says Kawasaki:

"Long emails are either unread or, if they are read, they are unanswered ... Right now I have 600 read but unanswered emails in my inbox."

Ack. That's a whole inbox orphanage—clearly Kawasaki is of the who-cares-about-inbox-zero school of messaging.

So how do we stave off our outbox abandonment issues?

By making our emails really, really easy to reply to. By making them, like a fine product, massively simple.

The key is understanding if we're trying to get our recipient to take some sort of action from the prompt that we give them. If so, that action—and its motivation—needs to be as clear as possible, delivered as cleanly as possible.

Since people are both busy and lazy, they're "more likely to respond to information requests—whether important or trivial—if they're easy to address," as Quartz recently reported. And even if a message is important, if it's too complex, it won't get a response.

What we need to do, then, is be like Steve Jobs, David Karp, and Toyota head Akio Toyoda and appreciate the user experience of our five-sentence products.

That way our messages will get read—and replied to.

Hat tip: Entrepreneur.com

[Image: Flickr user Marek Lenik]

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46 Comments

  • Danny D

    I think the format of an email is usually more important than the length of it.  If I see an email with 3-4 bullet points or numbered action items, I am much more likely to read it than 1 long paragraph. 

  • Cr8rface

    This is good advice, but it's funny. I stopped following Guy on Twitter because he tweets waaaaay waaay waaaaay too much. 

  • amd

    I am weary of others making up arbitrary rules about pretty much everything in life. Bottom line, we can all find ways to justify what we, personally, prefer in communication and every other part of our interactions with others.
    So I will continue to write what I want, at any length I choose, in any forum and in any way I please.

  • Volodymyr Krupach

    If you direct job is not about reading and answering emails you should minimize their numbers.
    Most of emails do not really need your direct attention. Just delegate and build trust.

  • Campbell Mackey

    It should be clear to the reader early on whether they need to action the email.

    I limit technical emails to one page on a laptop screen - any longer, and attach a word document, with a couple of sentences summary in the email.

    Sometimes people don't care that much if an email gets read, they are just trying to cover themselves by putting their recommendations in writing.
     

  • Rekhesh Jain

    Yes Sir !
    Your research valuable.
    Email should full and complete.
    It should be short and informative.
    With crystal clear message.
    And to the point to work done better...
     

  • Nurider

    "If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter" - Mark Twain.

  • Dijana

    Exactly!

    I disagree with the article and wonder will every form of communication be crippled to the point of binary code?  It's called written communication for a reason (communication as a two-way street).

    I don't see a point of having an email address if you're not going to read your mail. We are all busy (and important) but somewhere we have to draw a line. Tell people not to write you - problem solved.

  • Maria

    A whole lot of crap - as if anyone on the go is going to even bother writing 5 sentences if he can get the message through with just a few words

  • Mis

    I skipped reading this. It contains more than 5 sentences. The author should follow the rule he is talking about. :) My message is exactly 5 sentence long. Therefore I'm ending now.

  • Schakrabarti

    Really? Try giving information regarding a server or database crash to a client in 5 sentences and I will give you a Pulitzer (for journalism). Until then, don't go shooting your mouth off about things you don't know and / or don't understand.

  • Tammy

    The purpose of email is communication.  Communication requires focus, interaction, and skill.  It has been my experience that poorly written or too brief emails require multiple emails to communicate what could have been achieved with one well written email containing specific questions or instructions requiring a targeted response.  Clogged inboxes are not a result of long emails but of too many emails or too many other tasks consuming one's time and attention.

  • SteveD

    I get a hundred emails each day.
    Most get deleted right away.
    I know what would save me some time:
    If every email had to rhyme!

  • Sally Jozwiak

    Hotel Indigo used haiku throughout their branding. They even had employees craft and reply to emails using haiku. Not sure if they still do that but it sure makes you think about what to say before typing out a long, rambling diatribe.

  • hostile_17

    This is just people trying to invent things so they can sell book. Succinct is good - but no two emails are equal. 

    All this rules of five sentences just makes me think of something about Mary.

    "You walk into a video store, you see 8-Minute Abs sittin' there, there's 7-Minute Abs right beside it. Which one are you gonna pick, man?"

    "Unless, of course, somebody comes up with 6-Minute Abs. Then you're in trouble, huh?"

    "No! No, no, not 6! I said 7. Nobody's comin' up with 6. Who works out in 6 minutes?"

  • Steuart Snooks

    Effective email is not necessarily concise but it is clear. Clarity is king! 

    The key is to attract attention (in the subject line), engage interest (make your main point at start of the message, give details later) and then motivate reader to take the action you desire (simplify any complexity and be specific rather than vague on what action is required) and when you need it (by including a timeframe).

    Paradoxically, it often takes more time to write an email that gets a quick response!

  • Bradf1405

    Five sentences - blah blah blah.   Which busy professionals have time to read all their emails (in my case 100+ per day) containing five or more sentences - I certainly have not.  I get turned off after the first two lines.    I haven't got time to waste, so get to the point quickly please.

    I prefer emails that are brief, direct and in point form (not even in proper sentences are ok too).  The email should end with  a call to action.