Friday, April 17, 2009

On Writing Solid Emails

For better or worse email has become the gold standard of communications in our world. We use it to communicate not only with our superiors and coworkers, but also with family and friends. We use it for both professional and personal reasons and like any form of communication that has broadened out to the masses it has become misused.

Harvard Business Publishing has a well thought-out piece on writing email, that could also apply to blog writing. Most of it is common sense that has been repeated extensively in other articles, but repeating it is like the weeding that gardeners have to constantly engage in.

Most email (and blog) writing has moved beyond its original context as a form of formal communication to a more on-the-fly, asynchronous communication tool for those who do not want to engage in a conversation with the email recipient. In that venue, the recommendations proposed by the author David Silverman, may not totally apply, although, even some of his 10 points are worthwhile to consider.

But for formal communications that are going to two or more people, his points are invaluable.

1. Delete redundancies. Say it once. That's enough. If you're repetitive, the reader will stop reading and start skimming. (Like you probably just did.)

2. Use numbers and specifics instead of adverbs and adjectives. "The project is currently way behind schedule on major tasks," is not as clear as "The project is 3 weeks late delivering hamburger buns to Des Moines." (If you don't have numbers, still get rid of the adverbs and adjectives.)

3. Add missing context. Does your reader know that hamburger buns in Iowa are required for the company to collect $37 million? If you're not sure, remind them.

4. Focus on the strongest argument. Should those hamburger buns get shipped because the delay is embarrassing for the company, because it's costing children their lunch, or because it's costing the company tens of millions of dollars? Maybe all three, but one of those reasons (and it depends on your reader) will be enough to get buns on the road.

5. Delete off-topic material. The best emails say one thing and say it clearly. One-subject emails also make it easier for the recipient to file the message once they've taken action, something anyone who uses Outlook to manage tasks appreciates.

6. Seek out equivocation and remove it. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" works for Dickens, not status reports.

7. Kill your favorites. Is something in your text particularly pithy, amusing, or clever? Chance are, it's not. If it sticks out, it's probably a tap-dancing gorilla in boxer shorts — hilarious when you thought of it, embarrassing when it gets in your manager's inbox.

8. Delete anything written in the heat of emotion. Will this sentence show them who's been right about the hamburger buns since the beginning? Yes? Cut it.

9. Shorten. Remember the reader struggling to digest your message on the run — a BlackBerry or an iPhone gets about 40 words per screen. What looks short on your desktop monitor is an epic epistle on their mobile device.

10. Give it a day.
With time, what seemed so urgent may no longer need to be said. And one less email is something everyone will thank you for.

I recommend reading through the comments for additional observations about email etiquette.

Hat tip to Basil White for the Summarization flow chart shown in this post.

How to Revise an Email So That People Will Read It - David Silverman -

No comments: