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Get Shorty

January 19, 2011

The too-long e-mail generally induces the following behavior in recipients:

  • A sigh
  • Closing the e-mail and marking it as “unread”
  • Getting around to it later
  • Skimming
  • Reading partway through and saying “yeah, yeah, I get it”

Nobody wants to write the too-long e-mail but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Some things simply take a lot of prose to explain. Fortunately, there are some tricks to make a too-long e-mail less burdensome to the recipient.

1. Write an outline.
Despite her speech impediment and the faint smell of mothballs, your 9th grade English teacher was right. If you don’t know exactly what you want to say, you will dither around and waste words.

2. Write short paragraphs, even if it takes a lot of them.
Look at a newspaper. Long stories get broken up into lots of short, few-sentence paragraphs. Those little pauses make the page (or the message window) look less intimidating to the reader.

3. Use bullets and numbered lists.
Sites like eHow and Instructables break complicated explanations down into a few discrete steps. This kind of slicing and dicing makes for easier skimming.

4. Employ the sub-head.
Magazines and newspapers use short (often bold) lines of type to introduce sections of a longer article. You should to. In addition to breaking up a long grey page, they let readers know what’s coming so they can adjust their attention level.

5. Get abstract.
Every academic paper starts with an abstract, a few-sentence overview of what the paper will be about. Business and government reports use something similar: the executive summary. Whatever you call it, it’s a great way to let the reader evaluate the importance of the e-mail. If they can understand at a glance what it’s about, they may just choose to give the rest of the e-mail the time it deserves to be digested thoroughly.

Posted by Sherman Dickman