Picture the last time you had an email that sat in your inbox for days, or even weeks, but you just couldn't bring yourself to answer it. The odds are good that this email was too long, it didn’t make clear what was being asked of you, and it didn’t make it easy for you to take action.
On the sender side, crafting shorter emails can change your career and boost your bottom line. For solopreneurs, freelancers, and sales professionals who make their living pitching, having a perfectly crafted, short email introduction can drastically increase your success rate. For those making an ask via email, a message that is brief and adds value is more likely to receive a response. For everyone else, sending shorter emails doesn’t always take less time, but it does stack the odds in your favor for whatever you aim to accomplish.
There are a few good "rules" for sending shorter emails:
- Take the number of words you think your email should be, cut that number in half, and that’s what your word count should be.
- Never send an email that's more than five sentences long.
- Put the most important information first. "In an intro email, you’re giving essential information. You must get to the bottom line quickly," says Gretchen Hydo, who ran her own public relations firm in Los Angeles before becoming an executive coach. Hydo is a proponent of the "five-sentence" rule: "You are being concise and appealing, which leads the receiver to want more. Once the receiver has contacted you, the intrigue becomes shared rather than one-sided."
"I do not write all emails the same length. But every email is written as short as possible to get the point across quickly and effectively," says Matt Letten, cofounder of the diet and fitness company Vegan Bros.
Says Letten, "Cutting out fluff is something I always do to ensure my email does not get lost in the shuffle. The more important and busier the person, the more time I spend cutting out fluff." The Vegan Bros just inked a book deal with Penguin Random House and are in talks for a TV show. "This all has been accomplished by reaching out to important people strategically and effectively via email," says Letten.
Don’t send short emails for the sake of hitting inbox zero as fast as possible. This approach will backfire when responses boomerang back.
"If your goal is to reply to messages with the shortest possible viable response as a way to volley the responsibility for the issue back to someone's else court, then they will do the same, and you play this cognitive tennis match all day, in the end completing the task with incredible inefficiency," says Cal Newport, assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of the new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
As an alternative, Newport suggests that one carefully thought through message can eliminate the back and forth, thus eliminating "the requirement for constant checking that is scuttling productivity and making knowledge workers burnt out and miserable."
The beauty of sending shorter emails is that it empowers us to be proactive and deliberate about what we want, and make it easier for others to give it to us.
Jenny Blake left her job as a career development program manager at Google to start a coaching practice and write books. She says, "There are two key pieces to a good short email. One is a really clear subject line that indicates what action will be needed on the part of the recipient. [The second is that] the message should be short, sweet, and clear. Then the other person can respond and close the loop."
"It takes time to craft a short and sweet email," says Blake. She references the Mark Twain quote, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
That’s the magic of shorter emails. They have been thought through, and it makes clear what is being asked or what action is requested. The recipient, who has just received a to-the-point, meticulously crafted email, may be more inclined to say, "Yes." Because it was so easy.
Liz Funk is a freelance writer and author who covers entrepreneurship, productivity, careers, and how professionals can figure out what they're passionate about. Her website is www.lizfunk.com