March 30, 2017
In my first corporate orientation class, I participated in a professional writing seminar lad by Curry Young Consultants. In terms of return on investment, there are few hours of my life that I’ve referenced as much as that session. I think about these lessons surprisingly regularly, and over the past few years, I’ve condensed them into three rules I believe are critical for successful communication:¹
I should note that naturally, I’m verbose. Not only do I like words, but I have a particular affinity for florid prose (case in point). Even worse, I can’t claim to have a mastery of grammar, so I’ll often have dangling modifiers, split infinitives, and other grammatical no-nos.
Fortunately, I understand that my personal tastes don’t matter in this case and email communication offers an excellent opportunity for demonstrating these principles because it’s used so much.
Of all three of these rules, making it easy is the most important.
If it takes more than a second or two to scan an email and figure out what’s being asked and why, it’s not clear enough. This is also one area which differs most from how a conversation would happen. When talking to someone, before asking for their help, it’s often helpful to provide some context to the problem so that the question can be answered. With emails, I tend to write my emails out, and then rearrange them to lead with the question or request. If the request is at the bottom, or even worse, in the middle of an email, chances are that it’s going to be missed. Wherever possible, it’s also helpful to include specific details from an attachment into the body (e.g., you’re asking for an opinion on how a graph looks — put the graph in the email, don’t ask someone to open the attachment unnecessarily).
A few more suggestions on how to make an email easy to follow: lists, tags (e.g., [Action Requested]), assignments (e.g., @So-and-So, please do X) and even selective bolding (keyword: selective).
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
- Blaise Pascal
Making it easy goes hand in hand with eliminating excess, however, it’s worth calling out specifically because it’s so easy to forget.
While it’s tempting to provide all of the information that someone could ever want on the subject, remember that the goal is not to overwhelm someone - you’re asking for their help after all. So, giving exactly what they need to answer the question is all that you should put in front of them.
This can be difficult. It will take me multiple edits of emails to get the right balance and short emails can take 30 minutes to write (a shocking result when I realize that it’s fewer than two hundred words typically). I invest the time because the clearer that my message is, the fewer messages need be exchanged to arrive at an answer. So, the upfront investment will pay dividends in saved time. (Admittedly saved time is much harder to see than time spent, so you may have to trust me for a bit on this.)
If I’ve done my job with one and two, three takes care of itself and the person won’t have anything they need to ask me. On the other hand, trusting that someone will ask if they need more information is important in alleviating the pressure to have everything perfect.
There are circumstances, e.g., time sensitive questions or ones with more nuance, that I’ll feel uncomfortable not providing an extra layer of context that may not be strictly necessary. In situations like this, I split the difference. I’ll include the details, but I’ll do so in the “appendix” - i.e. below the signature. This makes it clear that while I thought it relevant to include, it did not meet my necessary threshold, so it should be viewed as optional reading.
¹ While this post focuses primarily on email communication, these rules are generalizable to all forms of communication.
Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!