We need to be more concise and clear in our communications, in whatever mode. This is not a new problem. Blaise Pascal is credited with this mind-bender:
I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short (Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte)
from Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16.
I've also heard it credited to Mark Twain. The reason it comes up is that it still applies, whether you are writing a letter in the 17th Century or your regular email today. I've written on this topic many times. It doesn't apply to Twitter (unless you feel the need for more than one tweet to say something).
Dan Brown (not the author of those books) has a great piece on writing The Well-Structured Email. The title almost says it all. In short he says:
Don’t send business colleagues a Wall of Prose. A well-structured email can get you faster responses.
Dan provides a lot more structure around his suggestion, but the basics are to break down the message into sections and be very clear what you expect recipients to do. His key sections are Action, Issue, and Data. And I think they need to be sorted in that order. Tell people what you need first, and then explain why and provide any background they might need.
I totally agree with him. This is a particular struggle for me, since I like to write. I have a mistaken belief that people want to read all my wonderful prose as it drops into their mailbox. No, really, they just want to get their work done. I need to help them do that.
Some of my other favorite suggestions on this topic (again):
- Consider your recipients' needs, not your own. Do they have the same context as you? Would this be better communicated another way?
- Don't send it in the first place, particularly those pernicious reply-to-all emails. Use the phone, walk down the hall. (I'm not as convinced as Luis that social media is going to be a sufficient replacement, but it should be considered.)
- Write a good subject line. I suggest re-writing ambiguous subject lines in replies.
- One topic per email. Responding and tracking the course of the conversation is so much easier.
- Don't assume any formatting or embedded graphics will be retained. Even when corresponding with colleagues, these things can get lost - especially if they are heavy smart phone users. I get replies to emails that I thought they could read and realize that my ever-so-helpful indenting scheme didn't work at all. (This counters Dan's suggestion to use formatting and colors - a couple commenters mentioned this issue with phones.)
- HTML email is wonky in many systems, consider Rich Text or Plain Text instead. (I wish iPhone gave me the option to view in plain text.)
- Try not to send attachments, or at least summarize why they might be interesting. Internal company emails should put attachments in a central location for common access.
[Photo: "Blaise Pascal" by Dunechaser]