Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Email Replies: Is Shorter Always Better?

two-sentence email reply

Are short email replies a good time-saving approach? A number of people seem to think so. Jonathan Fields writes:
I felt somehow compelled to match the length of the original email with my reply. So, if someone sent a 5 paragraph, 250 word email, even if I could answer it with 5 words, I wouldn’t. I’d build more content into my reply as a way of, I don’t know, honoring the effort that went into the original email.

Then, I woke up.
And I'm glad he did, since there's certainly no reason to write a long reply just because someone else wrote a long message.

Still, I think this policy, from two.sentenc.es, is overly simplistic:
two.sentenc.es is a personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be two sentences or less. It’s that simple.
There's also a three.sentenc.es, a four.sentenc.es, and a five.sentence.es - but they all seem flawed to me. They're artificial constraints that will sometimes work well - but almost surely sometimes they will not.

Yes, short replies can often be very effective. Steve Jobs is known for his brief replies - sometimes as short as "Yep" - and his emails are parodied at the Steve Jobs Email Reply Generator. But the messages we've seen are all cases where a short reply does indeed suffice to answer the question being asked.

My suggestion? How about replacing blanket rules with this commonsense guideline: Provide a clear, concise response.

If you're providing something other than a simple yes or no answer, take a bit of time to craft your reply to ensure it communicates precisely what you want to say, with no ambiguity. (But don't go too far and veer into unnecessary perfectionism!) A well-crafted reply will save time for both you and the recipient, in the long run.

Example: Many of my replies are to people who have asked for something I'm offering on Freecycle. If the person isn't getting the item, I do indeed write a short reply: I'm sorry, it's already been claimed.

But my message to the lucky recipient goes along these lines:
- You've got it!
- Here's my address.
- My address shows up incorrectly on some map programs; here's where it really is.
- When can you pick it up?
- I may leave it on my front porch; if it's not there, knock or ring the doorbell.

I can't say that in two sentences! (Well, I guess I could, if they were huge run-on sentences - but that's obviously not the right answer.)

Seth Godin's e-mail checklist includes the question: Could this email be shorter? It's a good question - as long as we realize that we don't want to sacrifice clarity as we aim for brevity.

What is the real reason the sample response above is only two sentences? Because two sentences does the job!

Related Posts:
The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You
Filing the E-Mail - Or Not

1 comment:

Jeri Dansky said...

I just saw this on Twitter, and it so perfectly summarizes my point:

Jason Fried: Brevity respects the reader.

Kevin Potts: Clarity respects the reader. Brevity is a natural by-product of clarity.

Jason Fried: True, better put. I assume brevity has clarity built in, but not always. You're right.