My day job right now involves developing newer, smarter forms of Internet messaging. But until that’s available (stay tuned), we’re still stuck with email. After 20 years of averaging a third of every working day doing email, I realized I could save hundreds of hours a year—and collectively we could save hundreds of millions of hours a year—by just writing wicked simple email. Here’s how:
#1: Treat the Subject Line as a Tweet
Despite all it’s faults, Twitter has taught the importance of brevity. In particular, the 140 character limit has forced us to figure out how to filter messages in that short space. Apply these learnings to email!
- If you want a particular person to read/respond to a particular email, put his/her name directly in the subject line—just like a Twitter @reply.
- If you want to signal that an email is about a particular topic, put a #hashtag in the subject line (especially helpful for mailing lists).
- If you want to signal that an email is time-sensitive, put the date/time requirement in the subject line.
#2: No Sigs
Over the last year, I began dropping my sig on more and more of my emails, and I noticed others doing it too. I suspect it’s spreading from Facebook messaging, where no one uses a sig. In any case, here’s why it’s a good idea:
- Unless you have your sig auto-attached to every message (a stupendously bad idea—please stop immediately), it saves at least a few keystrokes every email even if all you’re adding is your first name or initials.
- For 99% of the messages you send, it’s extraneous anyway. Pure dead weight. Your recipients know who you are or can easily find out.
- Eliminating sigs makes messages less formal, more conversational, and more immediate—all encouraging them to stay short and lightweight.
- In many cases it’s not even needed to signal the end of your message. If yours is the first message in a thead, just stop when you are done. If you are replying inline (below), just add your replies and delete the rest of the message.
- Most importantly, it interrupts the flow of inline replies. Read on….
#3: Reply Inline Whenever Possible
Modern email clients default to putting each reply in a thread above the previous one. Thus started the biggest time-suck in email history. Why?
- The context is already there in the previous message. You don’t need to repeat one word.
- Replies can extremely short and precise. Just add your reply at the exact point needed. Don’t wait until the end of a paragraph—or even the end of a sentence. Just pick the precise spot where you need to respond, click Enter, and type.
- The thread remains clear—right down to the “voice” of each sender, which can be much more important than you think.
- Deep threads are discouraged! Read on….
#4: Hold Deeply Threaded Conversations Elsewhere
We’ve all learned it by now: email sucks for deeply threaded conversations. It always will. So:
- Avoid going more than three levels deep—four at the most. Beyond that, start a new thread (following rule #1 above).
- Even that only works if responses stay short – preferably a few sentences.
- For anything else, use a real threaded conversation forum—a blog, wiki, Basecamp, social network discussion group, etc.
#5: One Screen Max
20 years has taught me one simple lesson: if it’s longer than one screen, don’t send it as an email. In fact if it takes more than a paragraph or two it probably shouldn’t be an email. Why?
- If it’s got that much thought in it, it should be reusable—and linkable. Email is where thoughts go to die.
- Longer writing should use real writing tools—headings, bulleted lists, images.
- People don’t like to read long emails. They want to process their email quickly to determine how to prioritize the rest of their time.
So if what you want to communicate is more than one screen, do this: type it up as blog entry, Google doc, social network group post, Basecamp post, or anywhere your recipients can read, refer, and respond to it (i.e., have that threaded conversation). Then send a short email with a link and an executive summary explaining why recipients should read it. The summary is really important—many folks get far too many links to read, so give them a few bullet points about why to read yours. And, of course, make the subject line of that email the tweet you would (or will) send to share it on Twitter.
- This blog post started as an email I wanted to send to members of a mailing list I’m on that’s experienced a recent sharp increase in volume. Then I applied rule #5 and here it is.
- The one place where it is natural to use a sig is on an introduction email, just like you would a written letter. So use it there and leave it out everywhere else.
- When joining a new thread, I may still add my first name as a sig at the end of my reply just for context. But in future replies it’s usually not needed.
- I left out one other golden rule of email—never send an emotional email—because that’s a different subject altogether. But it’s still a rule I recommend very strongly.
- My good friend Victor Grey adds one more tip: always assume that the recipients of your email will forward it on to anyone else that you mentioned.
- Another good friend Steve Greenberg suggests another guideline: Ask only one question per email.