Does the Five-Sentence E-mail Work?

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston recently posted in her Business Writing blog the following question: Does the five-sentence e-mail work? She says that a participant in a business writing program told her that he never produced e-mails longer than the magic five sentence length.

To me, this sounds like Twitter, text messaging or other abbreviated, modern forms of communication rubbing of onto e-mail, which has become a rather old-fashioned way for the young and socially adept to communicate, just ahead of the antiquated phone call.

Gaertner-Johnston says, and I agree, that the goal of an e-mail (and any form of communication) should be to communicate effectively. That being said, certain forms of communication are more effective than others, and also more appropriate for given circumstances.

It’s remarkable how many young people entering the business world (and “seasoned” business leaders who should know better) don’t know which forms of communication are appropriate, and which aren’t. To help address that gap in their knowledge, I’ve put together a brief list of modern communication methods and when they’re best used.

Twitter: Best used informally, for non-confidential communications, and for fun. Never fire anyone with a tweet (I shouldn’t have to say that!).

Text message: More formal and private than a tweet, but similarly short. Best used for conveying brief snippets of useful information (“meeting moved AGAIN now 5 pm LOL”)

Facebook: A well-managed Facebook presence can be a great asset. Remember, however, that your clients can see your prim and proper updates (“Rolling out version 2.0 to enterprise customers Thursday”) and your weekend updates as well (“Drank too much last night…go figure!”). Use good judgment.

E-mail: E-mail is a wonderful tool for conveying facts and even brief proposals or communiques. For longish documents, attach a .pdf or Word file instead to take advantage of the security and formatting advantages those file types offer. Remember, avoid trying to give an opinion, discuss controversial topics, or heaven forbid, discipline or fire someone over e-mail. These topics are best handled with a phone call, or in the case of personnel issues, face to face. And never fire off an e-mail in anger.

Voice: Once known as a “phone call” in the pre-digital era, voice is the preferred way to discuss many controversial or complicated topics so that subtleties and small nuances make it across. For example, “Bob is a real asset” typed into an e-mail means just that. However, said with the proper intonation in a phone call, “Bob is a real asset” can mean he’s anything but.

Face-to-face: Yes, it’s cumbersome and expensive in the internet era of world commerce, so dropping in on the gang in Delhi may be not practical. But nothing beats a good-old face-to-face when it comes to building relationships and keeping clients for a lifetime.

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