Email And The Art of Short Replies

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I’ve learned a lot from Seth Godin…

But, maybe one of the most powerful inadvertent lessons was:

Your replies don’t need to match the length of the questions being asked.

See, here’s the deal…

I get a lot of email. A lot. 300 to 500…a day. And, those are the ones that make it through the spam filters. Of those, more than a third can still be DOA—Deleted On Arrival. But, that still means another 200-300-ish that need action, often replies.

And, I started noticing an odd behavior when replying to long, rambling emails…

I felt somehow compelled to match the length of the original email with my reply. So, if someone sent a 5 paragraph, 250 word email, even if I could answer it with 5 words, I wouldn’t. I’d build more content into my reply as a way of, I don’t know, honoring the effort that went into the original email.

Then, I woke up.

And, Seth had a big role in that. One of the things I love about Seth is that he replies to email. Often in seconds. But, his replies are usually just a few words. Not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t put thought into them. But, because 99% of the time, that’s all it takes. Seth is apparently not hung up on matching the length of the original email.

I began to realize, most of those rambling 250 word emails I was getting could’ve easily been chopped down to 25 words with a bit of forethought and editing.

I didn’t ask for an essay where a stanza would do.

So, why would I feel bound, in my reply, to match the level of unnecessary “ramble-ocity?”

Decision made, I now reply to emails with the shortest possible response. Sometimes I feel a little weird doing it.

But, then I remember.

It’s not an insult.

It’s not that I don’t care…

I just really enjoy life outside my inbox.

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70 responses

70 responses to “Email And The Art of Short Replies”

  1. Karol Gajda says:

    Hi Jonathan, You might like this: http://two.sentenc.es/ (hat tip to Leo Babauta)

    Karol

  2. Mike CJ says:

    Awesome advice.
    Works for comments too. 🙂

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger: RT @jonathanfields Short Replies http://bit.ly/aCHLW3 (pls RT)…

  4. I know the feeling Jonathan,

    Often, when someone puts in a lot of effort to write a question, we instinctively feel the need to put in the same amount of effort to write an answer. I think it’s the law of reciprocity in action. But once we realize that it’s the value of the answer that matters, it becomes easier to write to the point answers.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      Good point there.

      I number the key points in the email so the reader can see exactly what I want them to respond to.

      A large part of bix comms is teaching others how to communicate effectively.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting point about the reciprocity impulse, I think you’re right about that to a certain extent

  5. Jeffrey Tang says:

    I agree with Eduard. The desire to respond in kind (length) usually comes from a good place, but can be self-defeating if it sucks up too much time.

  6. Scott says:

    What I love is when I reply with a small amount of text, I usually get the “are you mad at me or something”? reply.

    It’s awesome.

    Then I announce yes I am and that we’re breaking up. Always confuses my mom

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haha, gotta keep mom on her toes, lol! Yeah, that’s an interesting reply, it’s happened to me, too. I think some people have been trained to see brevity as anger. Think about it, when we say someone’s angry or in a bad mood, we say they’re being “short.” Challenge is conveying what you need to say in a way that makes it clear you’re not angry, just efficient…or not. 😉

  7. Erik says:

    Great advice!

    I’m guilty of composing said questions-as-essay emails because (in retrospect) I realize I don’t know how to properly phrase the question.

  8. Trying to get better…but I’m forcing myself to now…mostly out of frustration, but at least it’s a start.

  9. Tim Baran says:

    Great post – one of the more useful productivity tips I’ve encountered in awhile 🙂

  10. Dave Lopez says:

    I started writing short replies about a year ago and haven’t looked back. Personally I feel more productive by concentrating my replies to the shortest response necessary.

    Another area I’ve been working on is to stop reading long, wordy blog posts. I subscribe to a lot of blogs and reading them can take some time. Recently I started to skip anyone writing a long post (over four paragraphs). This too comes from Seth Godin. Although I’ve never read anything from him saying this, the proof is in his practice. His posts are typically short and to the point. My kind of reading.

    Dave Lopez – Music Mixing and Mastering Specialist/Emerging Music Producer.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting, to me it’s not so much about length when it comes to blog posts as it is about value. Clay Shirky, for example, writes monster posts that are almost always many thousands of words. Each is really more of an essay than a post. But, his posts are so juicy, informative and thought-provoking, I lap up every word.

  11. reese says:

    OH, thank you for saving my hiney today with this.
    I feel so much better now.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Haha, I can’t even imagine how many emails you get a day with what you do!

  12. Holly says:

    I have the same short response guilt. But, there just isn’t enough time in the day to write lengthy responses when a short response will suffice. I would like to note though, that it is important to remember to add some pleasantries to the email. If the response is short and blunt, it may be taken rudely. If you take just a minute to soften if up a tad, it may be received better. I had a boss who had the short response down flat, and quickly earned a reputation around work for being very rude! Anyway, just something to keep in mind. And I’m really not usually this word-y…ironic 🙂

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Holly, I agree, short doesn’t have to mean rude.

      The bigger point is to be begin to get a sense of when you’re being guided to expand a reply based on guilt versus desire

  13. Less is more. Good advice Jonathan. Sometimes we don´t notice when we waste our time.

  14. Louis says:

    This Abraham Lincoln quote evokes a similar sentiment that in brevity can be substance; great post.

    “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter. I did not have the time to write a short one.” – Abraham Lincoln

    http://thinkexist.com/quotation/i-m_sorry_i_wrote_such_a_long_letter-i_did_not/346101.html

  15. “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.”
    – Mark Twain

    Since the easiest thing in the world for me to do is to reply to an email with a brief dissertation, what you’re suggesting seems like a bit of an art form. However, I’ve always noticed that successful people, regardless of their industry, tend to respond to emails with 1-2 sentences.

    Now that I’m down to checking my email only 2 times per day, this would be a great next step.

    Thanks Jonathan!

    Doron

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Love that Twain quote, thanks for sharing it.

      • Mark Vakkur says:

        The variation on that theme I read was: “Sorry for the length of this letter – if I had more time, it would have been shorter” variously attributed to e.e, cummings or T.S. Eliot. As a writer of novella-length emails, my first impulse to any rule such as this is, Who says? Less is not always more. Complex ideas cannot be reduced to bumper stickers or sound bites. I think we have simply grown lazy, both in reading and writing which is why far more people read USA Today than the New York Times. But the larger point is well-taken and the probability of an email being read varies inversely with its length. Email is still an evolving technology so rules and guidelines on its use continue to evolve. If an email grows beyond 500 words, I often try to create a blog entry instead then send a link in the body of the email. Perhaps I should have done that here … if I
        had more time.,,

  16. Karen Castellon says:

    Exactly.

  17. I’ve noticed that I frequently write short responses, no matter how long the question. This has given me pause for a moment’s guilt before, but when I realize that I just don’t need to say more to answer the question, I feel fine with it and move on.

    It’s great to know that I’m not the only one doing this!

  18. Sean Cook says:

    Good post, Jonathan. Thanks. That is all.

  19. Mike Willner says:

    I think it’s great that you freed up your time to do higher priority things, without significantly degrading your responsiveness to emails. Could you free up more time by training people to read and answer the emails for you? Or would that be too impersonal? If you could, then, when you read an email, you would also read your assistant’s response. If it’s fine, you could just press send, if not, you could edit it, sending a copy to the assistant so he can learn how you want certain emails answered in the future. Over time, you should be pressing the send button most of the time, further reducing the amount of time spent responding to emails.

  20. I am agree with you all the way. I have been guilty of the long emails but I find I am becoming more effective in choosing my words. I think their is a big movement to streamline correspondence whether you are referring to emails or social media messages. Tim Ferris did a great piece on unfriending people on facebook. I agree Seth is a master of optimizing online correspondence.

    Thanks for the post. I am feeling less guilty for streamlining my conversations.

  21. John Soares says:

    I’ve been doing this a lot over the last few months, with e-mail and Facebook, and it saves a lot of time.

    It also shows others that clear communication can be achieved in a few words.

  22. I’m a poet and editing my thoughts comes naturally to me now. Good post!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      It’s also kind of a fun challenge so see how much value and engagement you can deliver with the fewest number of words

  23. Glen Allsopp says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    It’s funny you say that he responds almost instantly. I thought I had the rare chance of catching him when he was at his inbox.

    Sadly, when I emailed him I had a strange experience.

    I sent Seth an email after reading Linchpin for his thoughts on being ethical and building a brand in the internet marketing niche, which is known for having a bad rep.

    His response: “Yes, you can”

    I had asked him for advice; not a question, so it was strange to see that reply.

    I replied “Sorry if this sounds stupid Seth, but sorry, what are you saying I can do?”

    His response: “Yes, you can interview me”

    He may write short replies, but he definitely doesn’t read his mail that carefully 😉

    I’ve been getting overloaded in the inbox area and started writing shorter responses too. I know what you mean about matching the effort of the original mail, but a short response can be just as useful and powerful.

    _ Glen

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Interesting, I’ve never had that experience. Truth is, too, we all have off replies, off days and gaps in attention, I know I certainly do. It’s one of the reason I have the 20 second delay Lab feature on my gmail that let’s me retrieve messages that I’ve sent erroneously.

  24. Ed Gandia says:

    In the spirit of efficiency, two words: Amen, brother!!

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Loving how so many of you are leaving the shortest, yet valuable comments. I take no offense, lol!

  25. caitlyn says:

    I think that we lose something with a commitment to short responses & short posts. There is an enjoyment in “spending time” with the reader/author in between the lines, in the face of the prose, and through the meaning.

    If a short response or post does the job with grace, kindness, and a sense of completion, excellent.

    Often, I prefer reading a more lengthy post or response. I have an opportunity to learn something with breadth & depth. A life of 30-second commercials is a truncated life. To live fully, there should be a weaving of both.

    • biren says:

      caitlyn, what you say seems true too.
      maybe, this may help us:
      short for facts; long for feelings.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      I agree, sometimes questions and issues need a deeper exploration. I’m certainly not someone who limits myself to short posts on this blog. The real point was not that every communication should be intentionally short, but that it should be “no longer than what is needed.” It’s part respect and part survival skill, lol

  26. DaveUrsillo says:

    Quality over quantity, as they say. Great, simple advice.

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  28. Shane Mac says:

    I do this all the time but you missed one key point that Seth always does…

    When he responds he always plugs some kind of word or comment into the email that lets you know he read your post, watched you video, etc…

    He usually does it in the unexpected manner and I do it quite often as well. It is powerful and it is not what everyone else would do. I say it all the time… Stop asking what everyone else is asking.

    Ex. He watched a video of mine and instead of commenting on the message (like most people) he just said good stuff and made a comment about the type of water I was drinking in the video.

    It is that kind of unexpected response that is a secret to networking, communication, etc and he does it well.

    Keep up the good work.

    -Shane Mac

  29. biren says:

    excellent point. eloquently made.
    thanks for the idea-ride.
    love.

  30. Bonnie says:

    You are wrong about this, and so is Seth. You want fans, that is, followers who read your 350 word posts and then interact with you. You want those fans to link your post to popular social networking sites and you want to be able to mine their Facebook page for more potential fans. But, now that you have a few, you are lamenting that you might have to answer your fans/customers with an email in excess of 25 words?! This is what happens to American businesses when they begin to get successful. They start trying to figure out how they can give their most loyal customers LESS instead of more. This idea is a loser. You should drop it like a hot rock.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Bonnie, thanks for commenting. Actually, it’s not about giving LESS at all, it’s about giving exactly what’s needed, every last bit, without feeling either constrained or compelled by the length of the first contact. More words does not make a communication better, more personal or more valued. So, if I can get it done in 10 words, rather than 20, 30 or 40…why wouldn’t I?

  31. Jonathan, my friend! I love that I get prompt replies from you, and I appreciate them, at any length!

    But I respectfully beg to differ with the concept behind this post.

    Replying to emails with ever-shorter responses is not a long-term solution. What happens when you you start getting 1,000 emails per day begging a response? Will each email get one word responses? One letter responses?

    The problem we’re all having with overloaded inboxes is not length of replies. It’s that we’ve set up a system where 300-500 people respect responses to us per day. That’s where the problem is. We’ve got to fix the problem at it’s root–by somehow managing people’s expectations of how likely they are to get a response from us–not try to respond to more and more people with less and less words.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Michael, no doubt, part of the challenge of building a business or community is how you handle the promise of access. I’m actually not someone who’s ever build my “personal brand” on that promise, because I like to establish clear boundaries. I think an interesting phenomenon in social media is how WE set certain expectation, but also how certain expectations has simply become associated with the media and, if those expectations don’t work with our personal M.O.s, then it’s up to us to reset them. For me, part of that expectation setting is about the length of my replies.

  32. “Less is more”

    Point well made Jonathan

  33. Lundie says:

    Thanks for a great post! I didn’t realize that my perfectionism had wheedled its way into my handling of email. This was a great boost in the “just do it” direction.

    Have a great day!

  34. I guess I am just getting a head start. I don’t get that many emails or comments yet. Short and sweet, just enough to reply succinctly.
    Thanks Jonathan
    -Justin

  35. “Enjoy Life Outside the Inbox” is a great title for some future product. Not mine. Anyone?

  36. Great post!

    Very relevant for me -usually I’m more wordy than necessary.

    There are strong cultural differences though in expectations around written communications -so to establish rapport with more relationship-oriented cultures we need to add more of the pleasantries.

    Thanks Jonathan
    Trisha

  37. Gwen Bell says:

    Not sure if cursing is allowed in the comments here. But I’ll just comment to let you know I said a cuss word followed by YEAH! in my mind.

    That’s why 3/5 sentenc.es is so freeing.

  38. What a great post about something I think of often…but have never put into words. I completely get it! I want to be very focused and intentional about how I spend my time and energy, and that means spending as little time in email as possible. Thanks!

  39. […] Email And The Art of Short Replies by Jonathan Fields […]

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  41. […] Email And The Art of Short Replies: Oh yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this tip, Jonathan. I like it so much that I think I’ll […]

  42. Haha DOA, that’s a good one. I really dislike email and usign Gmai minimize it as much as possible If I ever get into the position of having 300-500 emails a day I’d probably ignore most of them or ask them to ask me questions on Twitter.

  43. Haha, the Steve Jobs and Seth Godin strategy!

    Always nice to re-learn that one should not do something just because everyone else is doing it, when there is an obvious better/easier way of doing it.

  44. Tammy says:

    Is this the beginning of the backlash against email? Just yesterday I was reading a post at zenhabits which was explaining why it’s creator, Leo Babauta,had decided to dump email. My first reaction was ‘FTW?!’, and I was about to email him directly with a similar reaction, when I had a eureka moment and realised the first ‘pro’ to not ‘doing’ email; you can’t get insulted by strangers so easily.

    Leo’s apparent only form of contact is now Twitter. The genius that is Twitter has trained us in the art of getting to the point, because it’s just not-twitterific to inflict multiple tweets on your followers when you have something to say. Surely we can use those new-found skills in email replies to say what we need while avoiding sounding snooty?

    Personally, I can’t remember the last email I sent that was more than 140 characters. I’m not aware of anyone taking offence, although I’m sure there have been some email-essayists to whom I’ve responded in about twelve characters, who’ve not emailed me EVER again! Either they think I’m terribly rude, or extremely busy and important!

    All in all, like a badly-behaved spouse, we feel a little controlled and worn-out by our inboxes . And although I can understand the decision to dump email; I’m not ready to end things just yet. Maybe we’ll go to therapy? My inbox can learn to respect my personal time and space and in return, I will learn to appreciate it more. If it doesn’t change it’s ways however, it’s only going to have itself to blame when it finds me in a no-strings attached menage-a-trois with Twitter and Google Wave.

  45. […] Email And The Art of Short Replies: Oh yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this tip, Jonathan. I like it so much that I think I’ll […]

  46. […] Email and the Art of Short Replies by Jonathan Fields […]

  47. […] Email and the Art of Short Replies by Jonathan Fields […]

  48. Art Vandelay says:

    I understand wanting to keep emails concise, but it’s really annoying to write something of some substance and just get back an “ok” or a “yes”. It comes across as rude.

    As for the question of email being “outdated”, I’d never consider Twitter or Facebook messages or texts as viable alternative because they’re closed, proprietary systems. Email is based on open standards.