The Gettysburg Address was 271 words long.
Yesterday, I received an email on a company policy change regarding coffee and tea selection that was 350.
I know—coffee’s important. But if Lincoln was able to eloquently tell a divided nation about the importance of humanity and equality in 271 words, I think we should be able to send work-related emails that are just a little bit shorter.
A lot of times, we’re afraid to be brief in emails because we don’t want to sound mean, or because we think we need to give a lot of information or directions to get our point across. And that’s fair. But I think we’d all agree that less email would make our working lives a whole lot easier. And that starts with making each one just a little bit shorter.
Here’s a quick and easy guide to keeping your emails short and sweet (without sounding like a jerk).
Cut the Fluff
I get a lot of emails that start off with fluff. And while, sure, it’s pleasant, it can also be a waste of time, especially if I don't really know you, or if I’m going to see you in a meeting at 4 PM.
In other words, you don’t need to start every email telling people that you hoped they had a good weekend. Unless you’re truly reaching out to someone to catch up, let’s just assume that we all hope everyone had a good weekend, is looking forward to the upcoming one, and is generally doing well. And then get down to business.
Cut Out Extra Words
We all add extra words to our writing from time to time for a variety of reasons. It makes the transitions smoother. It softens tough language. Sometimes, it makes us sound smarter.
In email, though, your job is not to craft the world’s most perfect letter, it’s to communicate quickly and easily. In fact, I challenge you to remove any words or phrases that aren’t absolutely necessary.
Take the following sentence from a message I received recently:
At this point in time, I think it would make a lot of sense for us all to regroup on the issue and come up with a few key points for discussion at our meeting in two weeks that will help us get closer to finding a solution that works for all parties.
What’s the main point here? It’s hard to tell with so many additional words. A phrase like, “at this point in time” doesn't add anything, and thus doesn't need to be included. Why not re-write it like this?
“Let's all come up with 2-3 discussion points on the issue before our next meeting.”
Everyone on the thread knows what you’re talking about, there’s a clear point to the sentence, and you’ve just cut down your word count by about 70%.
Be Concise, Not Confusing
I once had a boss who would send me short, cryptic emails that made no sense. I’d get an email at 8 AM saying only the following:
“Handle Facebook first thing today. —MJ”
What did he mean by handle? What about Facebook needed to be handled? His email made me ask several questions back, which he had to then answer. Though his initial email was brief, we’d end up exchanging more emails and wasting more time than if he had just included a little more information the first time. If he had added a just few more words, say, “Handle Facebook user responses first thing today because we had a lot of complaints overnight,” we could have avoided unnecessary back and forth.
Being smart with your words and brief in your execution doesn’t just mean being short. Make sure you're still being clear with your message.
Before you fire an email off, take an extra 30 seconds and read it over. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there a clear, easy-to-understand point to this email?
- Is there anything I can take out that doesn’t add to the main point?
- Can anything be simplified?
The more you train yourself to review your writing, the more you’ll see that there are areas to improve. And, more importantly, the more you'll start to automatically make these changes in future emails.
A final tip: Put your emails in a word counter to see how many words you currently average per email—it might shock you. Keep track of your progress and see how low you can go.