Getting to the Formulaic Point

When I saw that Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders had linked on over to Guy Kawasaki’s Ten Things to Learn This School Year to point at Guy’s assertion that business emails should be briefly written—specifically, in five sentences—I knew that I needed to write about it. One may argue that I’m influenced by my friend Stephen, who recently mocked five-paragraph essays, and I won’t deny the influence. Kawasaki is right that much in the way of business communication could well be done in the fewest number of words possible, but I do fear that there is a danger in being formulaic.

Here’s the relevant quotation from Kawasaki:

9. How to write a five-sentence email. Young people have an advantage over older people in this area because older people (like me) were taught to write letters that were printed on paper, signed, stuck in an envelope, and mailed. Writing a short email was a new experience for them. Young people, by contrast are used to IMing and chatting. If anything, they’re too skilled on brevity, but it’s easier to teach someone how to write a long message than a short one. Whether UR young or old, the point is that the optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.

I find it interesting that Kawasaki himself can’t be brief—I read through several dozen words to get to the meat of his argument. Thankfully, he didn’t bury the lede, because his final sentence gets at his essentials: who, what, why, and when. I find a couple of flaws with Kawasaki’s list here: not every business email will be sent to someone unfamiliar with your who and why. At this point in my career as a middle manager, I find that I know the who quite often, and the who tells me the why they need it. [For an example: when my vice-president emails me, I know who he is, and the why he needs it matters not to me—he’s the boss, so he gets it.] Externally-focused notes do indeed have a need for his information, however.

A second flaw is the emphasis on brevity. Too often, I find that a lot of business correspondence is ill-considered—a request for some Government Furnished Equipment, for example, doesn’t come with any context of what it’s needed for. Folks go on fishing expeditions for things, and when people are fishing, others are going to eye those requests very warily. There’s often a lot of context missing in requests made—one reason, I think, that top-posting is so prevalent, as Charles Miller notes:

Top-posting over entire messages actually makes sense in this context. Having the entire previous conversation available “bottom-up” at the end of the message allows anyone to read the full history of the discussion, regardless of how badly their mail-client sucks, even if they have played no part in the prior conversation. Everyone who already knows what is being discussed can just stop reading after the signature of the most recent poster.

Lastly, I think that there’s a danger in being formulaic. As previously stated, context isn’t always required. In some cases, being formulaic will actually do battle with brevity, as trying to fit an argument or assertion within the bounds of the formula will distract from the point by overly belaboring it. As my European History teacher from high school, Donald “Sonny” Renfroe, was famous for saying, “Have it be long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting.” In fact, I myself have fallen prey to this very peril in the writing of this entry, which could certainly have been done in one paragraph rather than five.

Guy Kawasaki argues that business emails should be as brief as possible: five sentences, explaining who you are, what you want, why you need it, and when you need it by. Kawasaki makes this assertion in a larger article about ten things to learn in school—a list that actually has twelve items—and does so by belaboring the point mightily and almost boring the reader before they get to the crux of the advice. Brevity is not always the best course of advice in business correspondence—sometimes, more context is needed. This often drives us a series of back-and-forth discussion points that lengthen the conversation and bounce from user-to-user, a process that’s driven most business email to use top-posting [a practice I find personally abhorrent but regularly use in business communication]. Finally, I argue that being formulaic can often drive the writer to add in unnecessary commentary merely in the guise of fitting the formula: five paragraphs, or 1000 words, or what have you. Having written this, I have successfully gotten to the formulaic point, and I will now remove my tongue from my cheek.