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Don’t Be Driven by the Three-Email Rule

Lately people in business writing classes have been asking about the three-email rule. That’s the rule espoused by Phil Simon, author of Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. Simon touched on the rule in a recent online article, “The ‘3-Email Rule’ Is the Key to Solving the Biggest Problem With Your Inbox”:

For a few years now, I have argued for a radical addition to the pantheon of email “best practices.”

Yes, it’s time to start following a three-email rule — and invoking it. Put as succinctly as possible, after three messages, it’s time to talk.

In my email signature, you’ll find that very rule:

I abide by a three-email rule. After three, we talk.

I don’t abide by a three-email rule. I have extended conversations, far beyond three emails, especially with clients and potential clients. We trade messages introducing ourselves, scheduling meetings and classes, clarifying details, agreeing on fees, checking in, troubleshooting issues, and following up. Sometimes a simple matter may require several emails back and forth.

Could we save time if we talked rather than emailed? Sometimes yes, usually no. And talking is often not an option.

We email instead of talking on the phone regardless of the number of messages because:

  1. It’s easy to send a quick email, but it is not so easy to schedule time to talk. My clients are moving from meeting to meeting; I’m teaching and traveling.
  2. We want to get the conversation started now rather than wait two weeks until we are both free. Even if it takes three emails just to get things going, at least they are moving forward.
  3. We can read and write our emails when we catch a free moment, but we don’t have the same moments free to talk. Often we are in faraway time zones, so I am still sleeping when they’re well into their to-do lists; they are heading home from happy hour when I’m still having a productive day.
  4. We like to have things in writing. If I answer their questions in email–even if it takes them three emails to communicate all their questions (and me three emails to answer them)–they have easy, searchable access to the information. On the phone, we would both need to take notes, either typing or jotting them down, and sometimes we would lose them.
  5. They can forward emails to whoever needs the information. Forwarding is much easier than pulling people into a conference call or sharing sketchy notes.
  6. When we talk, we need to follow up with confirming emails anyway.
  7. Some of us like to think before we communicate. Composing an email in a quiet moment can lead to a better, more careful communication than a call.

Yes, talking on the phone wins in many situations. Talking helps us get to know one another, coach, work through conflicts, schedule lunch quickly, and hear a range of reactions and emotions. When I talk with a client, I can hear hesitation much better than I can recognize it in email.

In my “110 Tips for Sending Email That Gets Read–and Gets Results,” I too offer a three-email tip: “When you have exchanged emails three times without a resolution, stop emailing. Use the phone or meet in person to resolve the issue.” It’s a tip for solving problems and clearing up misunderstandings when email fails or makes things worse.

Rather than conforming to a three-email rule (or making others do so), I recommend paying attention to what works. If exchanging a dozen emails leads to a happy, productive conclusion, write on! If talking brings quick resolutions, keep calling.

Do you follow a form of the three-email rule? Or do you email as long as you are getting results?


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Don’t Be Driven by the Three-Email Rule”

  • For all the reasons you mention, Lynn, email is often more efficient than the phone, but as you say, when questions are complex or laden with emotions, it’s sometimes faster and better to talk.

    Perhaps you could devote a post to a hybrid solution: chat.

  • I agree Lynn that a strict 3-email rule for every conversation is not practical. I am usually only free to take calls from about 5 pm on weekdays yet I have to communicate with lots of people several times during working hours. I have little choice but to send more than 3 emails to a person in a day.
    I have email threads that are months old and have over 10 replies on my side alone and I have still managed to keep a strong relationship with the person on the other side of the screen so I don’t think relying on email is bad for business.
    In my opinion, talking should be reserved for the extremely important in business; I see it as a sign of respect and deference when someone calls rather than send an email. So, for the first interaction I prefer calling as it also brings some human touch to the relationship, but after that is established (and perhaps after a face-to-face where possible) I resort to email.

  • Hi George,

    Thanks for weighing in. Regarding chat, can you elaborate? Are you referring to instant messaging (IM)? Texting?

    In our online classes, we use chat boxes. But I don’t use “chat” in other situations. I guess I’m not the person to write the blog post!


  • On most occasions I prefer writing, because of points n. 4 to 7.

    Plus, I don’t like strict rules: I prefer to ponder what works best for each situation. For instance, if I need a quick answer from a colleague in order to go ahead with my tasks, I’ll pick up the phone (or take the chance to move around and walk to their desk), rather than wait for them to read my email and reply.

    Another reason is that I sometimes have to communicate with people who can’t speak English very well (it’s not my mother tongue either) and talking on the phone, when the voice is never cristal clear, makes it even worst to understand each other!

  • Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for your good ideas. I am glad you mentioned the difficulty of understanding people on the phone. I actually had that idea as reason number 8, but I removed it because I feared coming across as critical of people who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language. I would much rather praise and appreciate them than even hint at criticism. But you said it perfectly. Thank you!


  • At my workplace, most of the emails involve a significant number of parties. Converting to a phone call means trying to schedule a conference call at a time convenient to everyone. Good luck with that.

    Besides, I hate doing business on the phone. I have trouble understanding people on the phone, and in a conference call I often can’t tell who’s speaking.

    Trying to end a conference call can be a problem. Many of them go on for an hour or more after they’ve quit being useful.

    With email, I have a record of who said what, so that I can check details that I would’ve missed (or simply gotten wrong) in a phone call. Yeah, sometimes I do mis-hear or misinterpret.

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