Long emails are the worst. Unless you absolutely need to send one, you shouldn’t (if the need is real, consider a phone call or in-person conversation).
And yet, instead of telling people to kindly boil it down, we trudge through their emails, wasting time. Or we risk missing valuable information by reading past dense blocks of text.
Neither strategy is effective. Nor is being rude to colleagues, friends, or potential business partners. One CEO has a simple solution:
“I work a lot through email and text. I make it my goal to review what has come in and separate those that I can answer,” says Beth Ford, the chief executive of Land O’ Lakes, in a recent interview with Fast Company.
“I also always say to my team: ‘Please don’t write me a novel, I won’t read it.’ I just don’t have the time. Instead, write in the subject line what it is that this is about. And tell me upfront–is a decision needed, or do you need me to look at something, or is it a ‘When you have time, take a look at this’?–so I can prioritize effectively and be responsive when I need to be.”
Simple as that, if everyone included this line at the end of their emails—”Please don’t write me a novel, I won’t read it”—in time, the novels would stop coming. Yes, it’s blunt. Yes, some people will perceive it as “too blunt.” Yes, those people are wrong.
Part of being an effective employee is ensuring you’re productive and efficient. Another part of being an effective employee is building positive relationships with your coworkers, which means they will probably send you long messages sometimes.
The beauty of Ford’s subject-line advice is that she is not dismissing the content of a long email you may send her or chastising you for sending it. Instead, she’s just telling you that due to the reality that time is fixed and work is ever-increasing, she will not be reading your email if it’s very long. This notification is both informative and actionable, as the recipient could easily re-send a more concise email or request a conversation.
Ford’s request also exposes conventional email subject lines for what they are, which is generally useless.
One major reason why messaging platforms like Slack have become so popular is that they enable quick, direct communication by cutting down on niceties we don’t really need. Whereas I once wrote my editors emails with vague subject lines like “Question about that story I just wrote,” I can now Slack message them, directly asking the question without preface. Directness and honesty are in, not only because they facilitate deeper workplace relationships, but also because they just make life easier, and more efficient.
If any semblance of “be more productive” is on your list of goals, consider making like Ford, and refusing the novels—especially if you’re a leader. Ample research suggests that when leaders model behavior, the rest of the pack follows suit.