One of the ideas that keeps circulating through books and blogs about business is that emails should always be kept short. The suggested rules for keeping them short vary – less than a hundred words, short enough to be read without scrolling, and, most common of all, two to three sentences – but the idea is similar, regardless. It is also an idea that can do as much harm as good.
There are at least two rationales for this idea. The first is that if you are sending a marketing mailout, shorter ones are more likely to be read than longer ones. However, given that mass mailouts are likely to be flagged by spam filters, I suspect that the length doesn’t matter much, and that mailouts of any length are most likely to go to the Trash folder unread. Moreover, most emails are not mailouts, and, in a business context, you can count on them being read regardless of length.
The second is more convincing: Conciseness is more forceful, and more respectful of the recipients’ time. And, certainly, many emails, such as those arranging a time and place to meet, hardly need more than a sentence or two.
However, if issues are being discussed online, a brief email will hardly be enough. You should still make sure that an email is no longer than it needs to be, but if what you are discussing needs eight hundred words, then by all means you should give it eight hundred words.
By contrast, insisting on conciseness can cause problems of its own. For instance, this morning I received the following email: “Any specific request for the Greek food? How many boxes would you like?”
I immediately understood that the first sentence referred to the Greek food that the sender would be bringing around to my townhouse tonight. However, at first I interpreted the second sentence as a question about how much food should be bought. It was only after I replied that I realized that the second sentence was referring to another matter altogether – how many cardboard boxes the sender should bring, since they were helping me pack. This is a trivial matter, but it shows how easily conciseness can create confusion.
Moreover, in many contexts, being concise can create a negative impression. It can sound curt or rude, or even indifferent, even if your intention is not to create such an impression. Communication is always as much about relationships as it is about the ostensible subject, and, when you are being concise, on of the aspects most likely to be left out is the relationship part. If you get too caught up with efficiency and forget this fact, that you can easily leave the recipient feeling slighted.
I had an example of this when someone recently sent me a three-sentence email in response to news about my partner’s death: “I am so sorry to hear about your loss. It is so sad. My sympathy to you and your family.”
The sentiments were right here, but the shortness of the sentences undermined them, making their expression sound formal and insincere. The email also has a staccato rhythm and regularity of structure which makes it sound even more perfunctory. It sounded so indifferent that I found myself wondering why the sender had even bothered.
By contrast, here is another email I received at around the same time: “I am so very sorry to hear this news – please know that you have many friends thinking of you and sending you support and love.”
It is just as short, and just as obviously from someone who does not know me particularly well. Yet it takes the time too be personal in a way that the other email did not, and as I result, I found some small comfort in it.
Novice writers might be tempted by simple rules to help them write better, but the point is that they rarely work. Follow a rule like the three sentence email, and you can cause yourself more problems than you solve.