4 Don’ts and a Do in E-Mail Communications

Young businesswoman thinking about something while sitting front open portable laptop computer reading email from client, long hours of work concept

Nowhere is brevity more necessary than in e-mail communications.

Polonius, one of Shakespeare’s most foolishly verbose characters, unironically states, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”   He buries this bon mot in a sea of nonsense, which makes the phrase both hilarious and impactful. The fact that it is uttered by a garrulous busybody does not detract from the simplicity of its wisdom.  We should all keep this advice in mind in our business communications.  If you want to be perceived as smart, keep it brief.

Let’s face it, our attention spans have gotten shorter in the age of smart phones and social media.  If the message isn’t delivered in a short burst of information, it just isn’t received.  In a piece by Sarah Perez for Tech Crunch about Twitter doubling its character count from 140 to 280, she notes that users aren’t taking advantage of the extra word count, “Brevity, it seems, is baked into Twitter – even when given expanded space, people aren’t using it.”

Nowhere is brevity more necessary than in e-mail communications.  Long e-mails, no matter how well written and informative, tend to be dismissed by harried people trying to clear their inboxes of the 150 messages they’ve received before they’ve even finished their morning coffee.  If you want your message to register, you need to rethink how wordy it is.

Here are some tips for making your e-mails both brief and sharp:

1.Don’t bury the lede:

This journalistic maxim applies in all sorts of business communications.  It means that the main thrust of your message should not be found three paragraphs down.  Start with the point you’re trying to make and then offer the supporting information.

2. Don’t over-explain: 

Trust that your reader is smart enough to understand the point you’re making without a lot of linguistic gymnastics.  Always offer to answer any questions at the end of your message if someone is confused or needs more information.

3. Don’t get literary:

A business e-mail is not the appropriate place to show off your flowery prose.  Simple, direct language is more effective than adjective-laden circumlocution.

4. Don’t use three paragraphs when one will do:

Edit yourself for extraneous content.  If a sentence doesn’t add anything to the message or repeats something you’ve already said, take it out.

Do begin with a pleasantry:  Even as you’re keeping things brief, you may want to open with something personal and pleasant like, “Hope you had a nice vacation!” or “Congratulations on your son’s graduation!”  People are more responsive when you address them on a personal level.

Obviously, some e-mail communication will have to be on the lengthy side, but much of it does not.  We all have horror stories of having missed important information in a long e-mail because we skimmed it quickly and missed the main point, or because we put it aside to be read later and then forgot about it altogether.

Practicing brevity will pay dividends in your work communications and may even make you a more engaging storyteller in social situations.

Related content:

Small Business Leadership Communications & Emotional Intelligence [Video]

“PR Is King”- A CMO’s Insights on Small Business Communications [Video]

Communications Lessons from the Broadcasters


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