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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- They can forward emails to whoever needs the information. Forwarding is much easier than pulling people into a conference call or sharing sketchy notes.
- When we talk, we need to follow up with confirming emails anyway.
- 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?
To write efficient, productive emails every time, take my online class How to Write Email That Gets Results. The next session runs on Thursday, June 18, at 1 p.m. Eastern (New York) Time.