For me, the amount of email that arrives is inversely proportionate to my amount of free time. This means the less time I have to read mail, the more mail that arrives. Greater minds than mine have attempted to tackle this unfortunate time management situation, so I'm going to keep it simple. You and I are busy people. We may or may not know each other, but we have the same goal — how can each of us effectively surf an ever-growing pile of information?
To this end, I would like to come to an agreement with you. Let's agree to a small set of rules that we'll follow when we mail each other, ok?
An Email Contract
Before we start, there are two kinds of email: original content and follow-on content. Original content, an email that is the first mail in a potential thread, is the focus of this piece unless otherwise noted. Follow-on mails, the ones where everyone else jumps into the conversation willy-nilly, are an entirely other article.
Let's begin . . .
Say something of substance with your subject. (Perhaps with poetry.)
The first line of defence against the absurd number of unread messages is the subject line. For a new topic, my expectation is that the subject line gives me an inkling of what I'm about to read. "Question" is not a subject. "Question regarding the impending disaster in engineering" is a better subject. The best? "Calamity is a man's true touchstone."
As I'm considering a subject line, I work under the erroneous, paranoid assumption that the someone I'm sending an email to is not going to read it. Chances are that they will, but when I fret about them not reading the mail, I get amazingly creative about making the subject line descriptive, relevant and poetic.
In the world of databases, there is a concept called an index. Simply put, an index makes finding the location of a single row of data much faster. A substantial portion of the field of computer science is devoted to the design and analysis of these data structures because computer scientists know what you know: finding what you're looking for quickly is awesome.
When you take a moment to add a bit of art to your subject line, you are indexing the mail in the minds of those who read it. You are making an impression, and that means not only are they more likely to read it, but also to remember it.
A three (or four) paragraph limit.
I believe email is not a long form communication medium, and my rule of thumb is that an email should be no longer than three (or four) paragraphs. You might hate this stipulation.
Here's the deal. I'm not suggesting the three-paragraph limit because I'm in a hurry. What I'm asking you to do is think. I've made it past your subject line — super. Now, I'm staring at 14 paragraphs regarding whether we should or should not open a new office in Berlin. My unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to 14 paragraphs is to flag the message for later reading. Flagging a message for later reading creates the same fake sense of accomplishment as putting an item on a to-do list — you give yourself permission to never think about it again.
Our Berlin office is a big decision and every single one of your 14 paragraphs demonstrates this importance, but are we really going to make a decision of this magnitude via email? No. There's great content in your Berlin office opus, but I'm going to have lots of questions for which you are going to ask for clarification, and suddenly we're in the middle of a lengthy email thread and my question is, Wouldn't this have been easier if we had just sat down and had it out face to face?
One of the many joys of email revolves around instant gratification. There is a topic that is suddenly bugging you in the middle of the night, and you're not going to sleep until action, any action, has been taken, so you write an email. I get it.
Think. Yes, you want the problem solved, but is email the right medium for solving the problem? If the answer is yes, then start writing. When you get to that fourth paragraph, ask yourself again: is email the right medium? Are you writing this because you want to get it out of your system RIGHT NOW or because email is the correct place to start this conversation?
As a person who spends a good portion of his life figuring out what he thinks by writing it down, I have learned to recognise when an email is therapy is for me and only me. I still write that 17-paragraph opus about the horrifying mess that is our interview process, but halfway through the rant I realise this mail is just for me.
The amount of editing time doubles for each paragraph.
Your instinct is to hit "Send." It's so satisfying to get to the end of your thought and just fire it off into the ether, but my request is that you reread it. I am particularly bad at this.
What makes an idea interesting to me is partially that I'm thinking it. In fact, it's so interesting that I'm going to write you an email on this interesting topic because by doing so I'm infecting you with its exciting and obvious interestingness. For me, the problem is that in my rabid fury of interestingness, my typing suffers. I drop words, I don't tie up logic, and often what starts as a well-intentioned email turns into a confusing, multi-paragraph mess.
With each paragraph you write, double the amount of time you spend editing. It's not just grammar and spelling errors that might be hurting your credibility. Is your point clear, literate and concise? Have you pruned aggressively to find the core of what you're saying? With each additional paragraph, the higher the chance becomes that you've made an egregious mistake that might make your email confusing and forgettable.
If your instinct is to hit "Send" without any editing, my thought is that you're more interested in therapy than progress. This thing you are writing is important or we wouldn't be here, but by choosing to send this thing to others, the burden of clarity and coherence is on you.
A Sense of Doneness and Humanity
It takes practice, but after I've written three (or four) paragraphs, after I've reread them three (or four) times, after I've written my alliterative subject line, I am looking for a calming sense of doneness. This email… is done. It clearly, intelligently and briefly describes my thought. I've exposed a truth. I've constructed a call to action. Now I finish with a smidge of humanity — I sign it.
I look at every signature in every single email and I assign a humanity value to it. Sincerely? Cordially? Best? Thoughts? No signature at all? You've taken the time to write these paragraphs, to transcribe your thoughts, and you've left me hanging?
At the gig, we're writing a lot of mail because we're very busy. I've noticed that we've taken to blasting through our paragraphs and either using a default signature or no signature at all and I'm of the opinion that an unsigned email is a lost opportunity to say something small and important.
Email is imprecise. It is easy to misinterpret. Email is a digital force of nature. It's not going anywhere, but email, while convenient and sometimes efficient, is dehumanizing. An original signature tailored to the email, no matter how brief, is a small reminder there is a human behind these three (or four) paragraphs who is worth your attention.
The Elegant Email [Rands In Repose]
Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley-based engineering leader who builds both people and software at companies such as Borland, Netscape, Apple, and Palantir. While he's not worrying about staying relevant, he writers about pens, bridges, people, poker, and werewolves at the popular weblog, Rands in Repose.