I've written about sending short, succinct e-mails in the past (Fear of Competition Is Bullshit), but I've never delved deeper into the subject.
I've been utilizing the 5 Sentences E-mail Rule for a while now. I first heard about it a long time ago in Leo Babauta's The Power of Less, but I never thought it was possible for the majority of my communication. In October of 2009 Leo published The Art of Brief E-mails and I decided to give it a shot. Although it took me a while before I felt comfortable using it for almost every e-mail.
I don't follow a lot of what Leo writes in that article. For example, when I get an e-mail without a subject line I get a weird feeling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Kind of a "What the hell is this?" That's probably just social conditioning so I'd like to thank David for always sending brief e-mails without a subject line to help me out with that. :)
The most important part of Leo's article, to me, is the section on Editing:
Edit. I know, you want to write it and send it and forget it. Well, that’s rude, to the recipient. You’re saying they don’t deserve a good email. I’m not saying you need to spend hours making every email perfect, but if you can take 10 seconds to go back over an email, remove unnecessary sentences and words, you’ll be doing your recipient (and yourself) a favor.At first it was a struggle for me ...
"But there's so much back story! This person needs to read the back story before I can get to the question/reason for e-mail!"
When you first start utilizing the 5 sentences rule that will probably be your biggest challenge. You're convinced whoever is reading your e-mail needs every single extraneous bit of information before they are able to respond.
That is simply not true.
What I've found when I receive really long e-mails (not everybody respects the 5 sentences rule) is that usually right at the end there's the golden ticket.
"So what I'm getting at is ... [insert question]."
Everything after the "So what I'm getting at is" part is usually all that is necessary for an e-mail.
Example E-mail"Hey [Person]!
Thanks for rocking. Quick question: [insert question]
Thank you so much,
Questions or proposals never need a back story. Never.
I Love To HelpNo joke. I love reading e-mails, I love getting to know you, and I love answering questions. I love to help. The problem is, the more this blog grows, the more e-mails I receive and the more difficult it becomes to respond in a timely manner. By putting these rules in place now it will be much easier in the future as this movement continues to grow.
I ask you to utilize the 5 sentences rule not just for me, but out of respect for your fellow Freedom Fighters. They have questions and want answers as well. If you send short, succinct e-mails, that means I can more easily help more of you. Woohoo!
Practice and Social ConditioningThe only way to get better at this is to practice. Start sending very short e-mails to everybody.
More words does not mean higher quality. Unfortunately we've been conditioned to think the opposite. In school you had to write a "10 page essay" when 5 pages would do. In blogging an article over 1,000 words is "high quality" while an article of 500 words is "thrown together." We need to change that because it's simply not true.
Two of my favorite blogs are by Derek Sivers (Sivers.org) and Seth Godin (http://sethgodin.typepad.com). You will very rarely find them writing posts longer than a few hundred words. Interestingly, they both also respect the short succinct e-mail. Coincidence? No.
The One Situation Where You Should Never Break The RuleBreak rules, except when you need to follow them.
The 5 sentences rule can be broken and I do break it myself. I would say 95% of the e-mails I send are 5 sentences or less and the other 5% are of varying length.
Here is where the 5 sentences rule should never be broken: initial contact.
After the initial contact, you might be asked to go into more detail on your question/comment/statement. In that case, fire away!
It boils down to what Leo mentioned: respect. Sending a busy person (in other words, everybody) a 500 word e-mail is disrespectful of their time. Send them a short e-mail and they will love you for it.