Write Less, Say More

Dear early careerists,

When writing emails, please get to the point. Cover relevant details, but don’t overexplain yourself.

I understand the challenge. Years of schoolwork have conditioned you to cite the literature, describe your methods, address counterarguments, and fill the page. But work isn’t school, and emails aren’t essays. Be concise. Your colleagues will appreciate it. Below I share tips for better correspondence:

First, don’t send unnecessary emails.
To write effective emails, know when not to write at all.

Not every thought needs to be typed and shared. Not every thread requires you to have the last word.

Before writing, ask yourself what you aim to accomplish, e.g., what is your BLUF (bottom line up front)? If you can’t identify a clear purpose, it’s neither worth your time to write nor another’s time to read.

Also consider whether email is the best medium. For example, if you need to have a lengthy, esoteric discussion, do it in person or over the phone. People receive too many emails. Don’t add to the noise.

Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
You may recognize this from Dale Carnegie’s classic: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

When you speak in terms of your own priorities, every detail seems important. You feel the need to be understood. So you talk ad nauseum about the background and nuances, your needs and justifications.

Newsflash: Nobody wants to read your long-winded tangents.

Get to the point from your audience’s perspective. What matters to them? What do they need to know? Considering their priorities forces you to tailor your message. Write what you must write—and no more.

Be respectful, specific, and informed.
Success is often a matter of framing the conversation properly. Here’s how to find the right balance and avoid common errors:

  1. Be respectful. Recent grads tend to make one of two mistakes here. The first is sounding too submissive, e.g., “I’m so sorry to bother you…” If you write like that, please stop. Most people find it irritating. The second is appearing entitled. Don’t mark your emails “high importance” or otherwise demand attention. What’s important to you may not be another’s priority.
  2. Be specific. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you want. So make your requests clear. The key is to be accommodating yet direct. When scheduling a meeting, for example, don’t say “my calendar is open.” Suggest a few options; if none work, they will propose other times.
  3. Be informed. When you have a question, Google it first. Asking broad or readily answered questions shows a lack of initiative. On the other hand, don’t regurgitate what you learned. The goal of communication is to have your message understood and acted upon—not to flaunt your knowledge.

By eliminating unnecessary emails, considering the audience’s priorities, and delivering our messages with tact, we take steps toward more effective communication. Brevity becomes a happy by-product.

Write less, say more, get stuff done.

This is the eleventh post in our series: Advice for New Graduates.