Verbal Clutter and Inverted Rectangles

All too often, important emails go unread, or read but not understood. There actually is an art, an easy accomplishable art, to composing an email that people will read, understand, and follow. Use these simple tips to get your message across in the email wasteland.

When critical information is buried in a muddled mess of words, recipients can easily miss it. For example, a manager sent a letter (an email attachment) to colleagues to confirm an upcoming meeting and to request their comments about an important agenda item. Only a few recipients responded to his request.

The rest? They didn’t even see it.

Why? Because his request was on the second page of the letter, in a paragraph that included other information. Furthermore, except for his request, the letter was nearly identical to the confirmation letter sent in previous months.

In reviewing service guides for companies, I’ve often found important advice masked by less essential information. In one case, for example, key information about network security was buried within less important procedures. Yet it’s easy to ensure that critical information stands out by using bold type, a catchy font, a contrasting color,a symbol (>>>) that signals key information, or a border around key points.

Prime culprit: email messages

Email messages excel at masking essential information. One of the most egregious email errors is the endless paragraph, the kind that extends from the top of your screen to the floor. Partway through, the reader’s brain starts begging for a time-out.

To improve readability, divide the message into short paragraphs; they’re much easier on the eye. Even then, keep the entire message brief. The longer the message, the less likely it is that even the most interested readers will read it all the way through—and retain it.

If an email message contains information that you want to be sure the reader sees, highlight that information in a way that signals: This is important, so pay attention.

Doing so is not without risk, of course: When certain information is flagged as critical, readers may ignore all the rest. But given a choice, which would you prefer: that recipients might miss critical information or that they might ignore less important information?

Communication Geometry

If you must send long messages, present the most important information first. Newspaper articles typically use an inverted pyramid approach: They incorporate the most important information into the opening paragraphs. Each paragraph thereafter is successively less important in conveying the essence of the story.

This approach acknowledges a crucial reality: Most people read only the first few paragraphs. Unfortunately, in writing email messages, some people use a related geometric approach that I think of as the inverted rectangle: No part of it stands out as any more important than any other; important information looks exactly like all the rest.

Meanwhile, people are downing in an infinity of messages, and I’ve yet to hear anyone shout, “Hooray, another batch of interminable messages!”

I suspect we could help ourselves and each other by applying the inverted pyramid format to our email messages.

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