A participant in a business writing program recently told me his goal was to write emails of no more than 5 sentences. He is the second person in his company who mentioned this writing goal to me. But is a 5-sentence email a legitimate goal?
Or should our goal be to communicate effectively, without regard to the number of sentences as long as our message is clear, concise, formatted well, and focused on results?
I believe in providing what each communication needs. The number of sentences is unimportant as long as we recognize this truth: The longer the email, the less likely it is that the reader will finish it and reply as we intend.
I read an excellent blog post on the topic of sentence-limited emails by Georgina Laidlaw, titled "Shorter Email: Productivity Help or Hoax?" Laidlaw described writing a 350-word email to which she received a 2-sentence reply that provided only a fraction of the information she needed. She realized the writer was a proponent of 2-sentence emails. But clearly a 2-sentence response was insufficient.
A 350-word email is a huge, risky test of the reader's patience and focus. In Laidlaw's position, I probably would have taken one of these approaches:
- Discuss the information by phone or in person, then summarize the key points in email. (This may work as long as the person isn't limited to 2-minute meetings!)
- Highlight the essential points and requests for action in an email, attaching the details in a memo or report.
- List the essential topics in an email, then follow up with a meeting request to discuss them. Attach details to the meeting request.
Of course, no matter which email approach we take, if the recipient insists on replying in 2-sentence or even 5-sentence emails, the amount of progress we can make in each round of email will be limited.
What is your view on limiting the number of sentences in emails? If you are interested in this topic, you will enjoy Laidlaw's blog post and the good discussion that follows it.
P.S. If you are wondering why I did not spell out the numbers 2 and 5 in this blog post, it is because I wanted them to stand out. Spelled out numbers would not have stood out in the text.