Is it Number or Length? Why Limiting Emails to 50 Words is Solving the Wrong Problem

Ex-Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, now that he has time on his hands apparently, came up with an idea that has caught the fancy of writers in the digital space, Why Limiting Emails to 50 Words Is a Great Idea.

I tend to disagree. In fact I believe the opposite. Reading emails is not an issue for me. Reading many, many emails is.

The whole argument for shorter emails, in fact, I believe will exacerbate the email problem. Let me give an example of, what seems like a weekly occurrence.  Colleague A wants to set up a meeting and sends me an email

Him: “ I like to schedule some time to talk to you about the Spring promotion. It’s really important that we get together to coordinate our plans”

Me: “O.K. when do you want to meet?”

Him: “I’m free next Thursday at 9:00 and 11:00”

Me: “I can’t meet on Thursday. But I free most of the rest of the week.”

Him: “ Next week is bad for me. How about the following week?”

Me: “I am wide open that week. How about 10:00 on Friday?”

Him: “ 10:00 doesn’t work for me, but I can do 11:00”

Me: “11:00 doesn’t work for me….”

This is not an atypical email exchange by any means.  On the contrary, what IS atypical is the well- organized email that may, gulp, exceed 50 words my fictional colleague may have sent out. Because, in fact, what is all too often likely to happen once we do actually meet is that…I am unprepared for the call because I don’t really know what the call is about….which leads to another round of emails to sort that out.

What my colleague could have said in his email is:

Him: “ I’d like to meet with you to discuss the Spring promotion. My team has planned to do the following”

We have a contract signed with celebrity Z that runs from the period May 1- November 30”.  She has agreed to allow us to use her name on Facebook and Twitter and will send out 3 tweets for us during that period. We have not talked to her about Pinterest, but she has a large following and may be interested in discussing that”.

We are also planning an in-store promotion that will have POS materials in several large chains? Would you have anything on the mobile side that will tie in with that?

We’re also planning an e-blast to go out during that period with an estimated 4MM impressions to our target demographic.  We wanted to tie back to the website. Do you have a microsite planned?

Let’s see if we can get together to discuss this next week. I am available all day Thursday, Wednesday at 9:00 and Friday morning. Do any of those times work for you?”

One email and hopefully just one email answering it from me.  But, this type of email just doesn’t exist anymore because…when we get an email this long, we don’t read it. You want to know why? Because we have 200 other emails in our in-boxes to read, so we’ve learned if we write a long email…no one will read it. A vicious cycle of unproductive work.

So I suggest we take a look at how we communicate via email, in the same way we’ve looked at how we do PowerPoint presentations. As we’ve  moved toward ridding our presentations of lines and lines of text and boiled it down to the most important information to communicate, let’s look at emails in the same manner.

The core answer to taming emails is the same – but the starting point is different. In presentations, we had to train ourselves to parse information. For emails we need to train ourselves to GIVE information. It doesn’t need to be lengthy and but it needs to be focused on imparting the most important information.

Until we get to that point, I will continue to follow my own personal email rule.  On the third exchange, I pick up the phone.

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