The Single Best Way to Improve Your Emails

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It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The Webby Awards, which celebrates the best of the Internet, get it right at their annual ceremonies—limiting speeches to just 5 words or less. From political activist Lawrence Lessig’s powerful and simple words, “I’m not dead yet,” to Ogilvy Paris joking “The secret of success is…” to Steve Wilhite’s informative clarification, “It’s pronounced jif not gif” (he invented the format by the way), the Webbys have known since 1999 that one can surprise, share advice and inspire in just five words. No more.

Five.sentenc.es also applies this philosophy to everyone’s shared repugnance of long emails. It’s a “personal policy that all email responses regardless of recipient or subject will be five sentences or less,” and often noted in an email signature. And once that sentence limit is set, the writer discovers the potential and rare beauty in brevity.

Yes, you want to be polite and not sound like a rude dick—but those introductory and final sentences in an email are often wasted on manners and fluff, when they’re what capture the reader’s attention. Send a letter via USPS if you want to be polite; send an email if you want action.

To immediately start making your emails more succinct and to the point, eliminate:

  • Meaningless words: basically, actually, in fact
  • Repetitive words and phrases. Ex) “look forward to” and “excited about” in the same email is a no-no
  • “There” or “It” at the beginning of a sentence; instead, start with verbs or important subjects

Over the long term, however, get in the habit of re-reading email drafts before clicking send. And with every re-read, cut down instead of writing a few more sentences. Because every time you send over a thoughtful, carefully edited email, you increase the value of your pings—corresponding with the reader’s appreciation.

So next time you’re writing an email or giving an awards speech (if you’re reading this blog, we’re optimistic about you!), channel the “express” grocery line: 5 items or less! And maybe your mom will take the hint, too—and shorten those hour-long phone calls to a single Instagram.

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