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If you want to compose better emails, forget formatting.

- practice making emails short. Write, then rewrite to 50% of original length, then try to make it even shorter.

- make the request a separate paragraph (request = what you want the other person to do)

- if your email is an attempt to persuade someone, don't bother. Go talk to them. Email will cause you problems in your career if you keep that up. It's unsuitable as a means of discussion (same as Slack and any other written medium). The only reason to do that is if you can't get the other party on the phone/in person (which is almost never the case).




>if your email is an attempt to persuade someone, don't bother. Go talk to them.

This really depends on the person being persuaded and the type of topic.

For me (and I know many that agree), it's better to put a complex topic into an email than to walk up to people. Organize your thoughts, use bullet points, prioritize the most important things, add web links or other evidence to support your ideas.

The problem is that when you just walk up to my desk or call me on the phone to talk about something complex, you're now forcing me to become your secretary and transcribe your notes. I'm now "writing out your email" that I would prefer you write yourself. That's not being respectful of my time. I can read at ~250 wpm; you can only talk at ~100 wpm.

Yes, if it's something lightweight like you're trying to convince me to go to the Chinese restaurant instead of Italian for lunch, go ahead and talk to me instead of write up an email. Otherwise, please consider if the recipient of your complex topic wants to be your "secretary".

I would be very curious of a survey that asked if people preferred to be convinced by coworkers talking to them instead of writing emails/reports with organized and coherent data. Would it be a minority or majority of respondents?


I don't mean for this to be blunt, but since we're talking about work, if I want to persuade you of something, it's your job to listen to me, because my persuasion will be aimed at accomplishing company goals! So we are both on the clock here, not just you.

I can also assure you I speak faster than I type, and so it's not just your end that counts.

I'm also pretty sure I can say much fewer words with proper tone of voice to convey as much as 5x long email correctly, and a single word of your response and a look at your face as I speak will tell me more of what I should understand of your reaction than even the most elaborate written response...

Persuasion and discussion isn't about me laying out my point clearly in a tidy format though, right? It's about mind-sharing, interaction, sensitivity, etc.

Maybe we come from very different types of organizations? I have never, ever (!) in my 15+ year career been in a position where too many unprepared people forced me in any way to listen to their stupid / ill-prepared ideas....

[Edit] I'm also confused, how does someone coming up to talk to you forces you to write anything down?? (seriously I don't get that part :) )


> I'm also confused, how does someone coming up to talk to you forces you to write anything down?? (seriously I don't get that part :) )

Because the most important thing in corporate environment is paper trail. If someone comes to you in person and convinces you to do something you still need an email exchange with summary of what you've agreed on, otherwise someday someone will blame you for a bad decision, and you won't have anything material to defend yourself with.


> if I want to persuade you of something, it's your job to listen to me

> Maybe we come from very different types of organizations? I have never, ever (!) in my 15+ year career been in a position where too many unprepared people forced me in any way to listen to their stupid / ill-prepared ideas....

You truly work in some parallel universe to my own where the laws of office interaction are very different from those I've observed. Are you hiring?


>if I want to persuade you of something, it's your job to listen to me

If you're trying to persuade someone of something, you're the salesman in that situation. Keep that in mind.

>I can also assure you I speak faster than I type, and so it's not just your end that counts.

That wasn't the point; jasode was asserting that many people read other peoples' writing faster than others speak, not that other people can type faster than they can speak.


I get it. But we have to weigh both sides of the cost, and if you want me to type something up, it's not just that you gain by it because you read fast - I lose something because I type slow! And org pays for both our times.


> I'm also confused, how does someone coming up to talk to you forces you to write anything down?? (seriously I don't get that part :) )

Agree with the rest of your post, but this was the main takeaway for me. If you compulsively take notes one every single face to face interaction, that's not my problem.


Well they did qualify with that it was a complex topic. And am not sure he hinted that it was compulsive.

I tend to work in a banking infrastructure environment and it's common practice to take notes,

The number of conversations I have during the day often has me saying, I'm not going to remember everything you've said, could you put that in a email so I can get back to you properly.

It does depend on the environment,


This is one of the benefits of the Amazon writing practice; write up a one-pager on a topic and have a meeting where the first 10-15 minutes are reading the document. Then have a discussion. It's a good way to get to a consensus and it's respectful of everyone's time.


Always do both.

If it matters, do both.

The email is for reference, the walk and talk is for communication, awareness and motivation.


> I can read at ~250 wpm; you can only talk at ~100 wpm.

I agree with your point that reading is better than listening for complex topics, but I don't agree this is the reason why, at least not for me.

I find that when someone is trying to orally explain something complex to me, I have to repeatedly tell them to repeat what they've said. They'll say a complex point, I'll think about it for a few seconds for the implications, and in that time they'll have said more things for which I was not listening because I was thinking of their previous point. I'll wait for a few seconds to see what keywords he'll say to see if I can fill in the lost seconds, and then just tell him to flat-out repeat the last X seconds if I can't figure out what he's talking about now. Telling him to repeat himself every few seconds is annoying to both of us, so I'll mostly just continue with what bits of information I can absorb at the speed he's speaking, and then we'll argue and find out the arguing wouldn't have been as necessary if I hadn't missed some points he said. Then we'll, again, talk about his speaking speed, but realize speaking without consideration of the listener is so core to him that it's hopeless to expect change.

It's mostly an issue with a coworker that doesn't think a bit before talking, as in he's not putting any effort into composing the information as he's providing it, and will just bombard me with mixes of relevant and not relevant information like a machine gun. It's exhausting to be super focused to spot when he's subtly gone off in a tangent and then argue with him about how that information is irrelevant to his previous point so he'll stop and get back on track to the issue.

Text, on the other hand, is usually composed, so the information is easier to digest. I can skim around based on keywords to find the most important information, and I can quickly go back and re-read to make sure I've understood the details of what I just read. I can also absorb this information at my own pace. I don't need to depend on the speaker matching his speaking to my listening.

I can also take my time in composing my reply and tune it so that it solves the issue with as little arguing and time wasted as possible.


Speaking as a guy with a reasonably successful 30 year career: This is mostly not great advice.

- Formatting is useful, and should be used as needed, especially headings and, as indicated, color. Don't become a plaintext zealot. It's not a good hill to die on.

- Emails, like all communication, should be as short as possible -- but no shorter. Brevity itself is not a useful thing.

- The 2nd bullet is, about the request as a distinct paragraph, is good. A proper email that requests action should make that requested action VERY clear, along with expectations and ideally a timeline.

- Contrary to this assertion, email is actually an EXCELLENT forum for discussion in the right context. This is because email is easy to archive, and leaves a trail of the discussion. It's not the ONLY venue, but it's very useful, and in my career has been commonly used as such.


Thanks for the advice! I generally like to keep emails as plain as possible (I do not enjoy the collection of signature images/company logos that accumulate at the bottom of long email chains), but I do try to format important points with bold/color when appropriate.

I have gotten into trouble being too concise in emails! Some people are quite sensitive to requests when they are too short, sometimes it helps to soften the request with a compliment or explaining the extenuating circumstances


ZOMG everyone hates the sig pile. Like, if your signature and disclaimer boilerplate is longer than most of your emails, your company is DOING IT WRONG.

I find restating context, even briefly, is nearly always worthwhile. You never want to make folks scroll down to see the rest of the chain if you can avoid it.


Any written medium is a bad forum for discussion because it completely lacks the wide emotional bandwidth. If the topic is in any way subtle, risky, controversial, etc. you will get more conflict, misunderstanding, etc. in writing than in person, and fallout will be much harder to get away from. That has been the experience of me and many managers I worked with in IT over the years. I would be shocked if you could get anywhere near the results of in-person conversations with written comms. That should only be possible if you are incredibly aligned with everyone in your org (how likely is that?) or you aren't really discussing anything openly (feigned discussions).


All I can tell you is what I've seen as an internal resource, internal manager, consultant, and external vendor over 30 years.

It can and does work. It's not a replacement for meetings (there's no one-size-fits-all in communication), but it is super useful and super effective if used correctly. I'm sorry your job has convinced you otherwise.


What's the median age of people you work with in that mode? (my guess above 35)


It'd be hard to guess, but because we have a lot of younger workers on the front-end of our customers today, I'd guess early 30s.


Nice! I'll think about what you've written. Thank you.


> if your email is an attempt to persuade someone, don't bother.

I think this is completely accurate for most companies, and so sad at the same time.

At a not so extreme point, this means people will pester anyone in a position to take decisions in any possible way. They'll stalk to steal minutes here and there for subjects that can be super complicated and context sensitive, but not important enough to have people stop everything they're doing. They'll book meetings on lunch times, over other meetings. They'll derail meetings because couldn't get a separate meeting. They'll get comments and stark looks because they're obnoxious but it's also the only way to get any decisions from their perspective, and at the end of the day they'll be vindicated as their projects move forward while others stay in the mud.

It feels like hell on both sides of the stalking, I guess it's the price to pay when email or chat, or asynchronous communication is seen as a low tier channel.


Yes, it's bad. In my experience it's because relatively low percentage of people in a typical org have enough trust to one another that they won't misinterpret the wrong way.


Fwiw, I agree with you about speaking in person. I will say though, that I've started to encounter younger people now who will actually come right out and say "I don't do well with face to face conversations and I'd prefer to discuss this on Slack or in a Google Doc" and they somehow get management support for that.

Maybe it's just my crazy company, but there seems to be some kind of thing going on where having any amount of social skills is no longer mandatory. And I'm not talking about awkward people who may be hard to talk to, I'm talking about people where you wouldn't realize anything is wrong and then they go complain to HR that they feel "put under too much pressure" by certain people in face to face conversations (it's not just me that get often reported for this, it's like half the engineers). It's not like they really "punish" anyone or anything for these ridiculous reports, but they also don't do anything to solve the issue of people refusing to talk face to face.


I am not young, and I do better with asynchronous communication. I don't mind chatting on the phone when it makes sense to, but I generally prefer email; it gives me time to think through what I want to say and make sure it's communicated correctly. On the phone, I wind up going silent for a minute to think things through, and other people get uncomfortable because of the silence.

Worth noting, it's not about social skills. It's about having the time to fully think through a complex issue and the information related to it. That just isn't possible during a synchronous conversation. You wind up having meetings where the things that get decided aren't the right things because people didn't have time to actually think through all the factors involved.


Sometimes it takes longer than a few minutes to think about something. I often write out my messages and not send them. Sleep on it, come back and delete to write something better.

I've found myself in many situations where sleeping on an issue provides a much better, thorough and more clever solution than just blasting off an email. If I were to provide responses face to face, there's a good chance I'd be giving bad advice that may cost companies a lot of money.


If you are on a team, and you know you need time & space to think things through, they should know it too (from you). It's your job to tell them, no? Then they either respect that and give you time when you need it, or don't. If they do, no issue. If they don't, they are going to go around you anyway whether you like it or not... just how work works.


> Fwiw, I agree with you about speaking in person. I will say though, that I've started to encounter younger people now who will actually come right out and say "I don't do well with face to face conversations and I'd prefer to discuss this on Slack or in a Google Doc" and they somehow get management support for that.

I can't shake the feeling that the underlying reason (perhaps unconscious) GP recommends using face-to-face conversations for persuading is that these conversations are more successful at their goal than the email equivalent. This is a bad thing, in my opinion. Worse for me (who's been persuaded) and worse for the company.

Compare with advertising. The conversion rate of door to door sales is far better than a classified ad - and the reason is that salespeople are trained to be aggressive, pushy, emotionally manipulative, and force hasty decisions to get what they want. They are able to use a whole raft of techniques to get you to buy that printed ads cannot.

Similarly, rejecting decision making during interpersonal interactions has nothing to do with one's social skills. It's about recognizing one's own susceptibility to being emotionally manipulated in a conversation and rejecting that way of making decisions. Good for me, good for the company.

It's not surprising to me that the "old guard" who's learned to use these techniques in the business world for decades is a bit put off by people rejecting them outright. Then again, I'm sure there are many people who have been in business for decades who are glad to be able to let their guards down a bit with the shift to email. It's not just the young who have this preference, though because most didn't acquire these skills, they are the majority.


  face-to-face conversations [...]
  aggressive, pushy, emotionally
  manipulative, and force hasty
  decisions 
Not every conversation is like that - I don't ask my children to e-mail a report on what their day at school was like :)


No, no. The reason I suggest face-to-face is because only face to face is good at conveying emotion. Everything else falls short in that respect, and because work has a lot of conflict involved, non f2f comms increase unnecessary conflict, slowing everything down, creating (!) personnel problems, etc. People arguing on Slack and email are an HR and management nightmare, they really are. Once you get someone to actually talk in person to them, and then get the parties to talk about the issue in person, things get magically resolved.


I sure hope it's just your company (any, it's not the case at mine). As someone who has difficulty communicating with people, I do anything important face-to-face if at all possible. I have enough trouble reading people as it is. I need all of the extra social cues I can get.


I have to disagree here -- emails are extremely useful for two reasons:

1. It leaves a paper trail (good for accountability),

2. In the case of forgetting a detail or ambiguity, you can look back into the email.

I myself struggle with parsing and retaining spoken language, so I make sure to send email confirmations for specific tasks.


This. Also, bold is shouting, in some circles.

My 'go to' example, when explaining the power of brevity to others, is Hemingway's reputed resignation to his publisher. Vulgar, but a study in brevity: "Upshove Job Asswards".

My second example is also Hemingway, this time from a wager to write a story in 6 words. Hemingway won the wager: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_sale:_baby_shoes,_never_wo...


I've never heard about bold being shouting. Where is that? IME, all-caps is shouting and bold is merely a type of delineation.


Bold is the single-color equivalent of highlighting. The eye will be drawn to and read boldface words before starting to read the main text, which is why italics are recommended for simple emphasis— from a distance they don’t draw as much attention, but still signal increased importance to the reader.


That's the way I've always understood it too. Italics for light delineation, and bold for important delineation.

I've just never heard of bold as yelling, and am interested to know which cultures consider that to be so.


I agree with all of this, except I've observed that written media can be extremely effective as a means of discussion. In meetings at our company, most of the material discussion takes place in writing before the in-person meeting even starts. The first ~10 minutes of a meeting are spent reading people's comments in silence until everyone is caught up.

It's an unusual approach, but results in faster and higher quality decisions than any other method we've tried.


Interesting. May I ask -- what are the written comments responding to? A question? A problem statement? Is it a full forum-style thread/discussion (with message-response-response...response) or is it a 1-shot style comment from anyone who had something to say before a meeting?


If you want to compose even better emails, learn how to be good with formatting. The linked article makes a fine case of how to.

Just like paragraphs (which are just another form of formatting) using indentations, list items, font weights and capitalization correctly will help you structure any text and get your point across more easily.

It's important to keep in mind that email is quite literally the only domain, where this is even a topic of discussion, solely due to legacy reasons. I do like not having font color and h2 tags abused, but the key to that is email literacy, not taking away formatting options, that are helpful in making the medium work better for humans.


Back when there were no apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams etc Email was probably the only platform for everyday conversations within an organization. But now you hardly need email for day to day trivial conversations within a group. Of course you need Email for a formal organization-wide communication and for all external communications for which you need to put some effort in composition and formatting.


I think your comment depends entirely upon your default style of writing. For me its usually the opposite - I need to pad out my emails and clarify what I mean when I say certain things.

If I am working on a problem I have lots of concept in my head, and its my initial instinct to just write what I am thinking. On reading through the email a second time, I realize that I need to clarify what I mean by certain words / phrases as the reader hasn't been working on the same thing as me for the last few hours / days so their context will be very different from mine.


> The only reason to do that is if you can't get the other party on the phone/in person (which is almost never the case).

Well, for me it's mostly to keep people accountable. If you have written down in an email that the deadline is for day X, there is no way someone could say "well, you didn't tell me"


Reminds me of that quote:

’I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’


I see you've had a lot of comments disagreeing with your assertion that email is a bad way to have a discussion. I think I understand your point, and I too feel that my discussions are most effective in-person, followed by video chat, followed by phone, and finally in last place written simply due to the varying absence of body language and voice tone.

That said, I must disagree within the business context simply for the following reasons, all of which effect me daily in my career:

1. The Internet is global, the world is global, not everyone is a native English speaker and it is necessary to be very clear, and give sufficient time for understanding. Written communication facilitates this by being asynchronous and providing a pathway for transliteration. In my current role I interface with people across more than 60 countries to get large, complex, technology and engineering tasks completed. Email (and to a lesser degree Slack) is essential to this.

2. I work remotely, as do many of my peers, this makes a face to face conversation basically impossible. As a rule, an office culture of having face to face conversations as a preference subtlety devalues the contributions of remote workers and creates a separate political hierarchy within the organization based on higher rapport from face-to-face conversations and the availability of the "hallway track". By building a culture of written, asynchronous communication, we ensure that /all/ employees are on equal footing across the company both politically and materially.

3. My technical projects are of sufficiently high complexity and need a very high level of shared understanding, and that complexity is difficult to communicate with accuracy and precision in spoken word, as it often needs illustrative images accompanying an explanation. Rich text and images together are far more effective at communicating this complexity than speaking to someone. Better yet, is often a demo done via screen sharing or screen sharing for pair programming work.

4. Everyone is busy and has their own personal biases and priorities, as applied to the workplace. To ensure everyone is moving in generally the same direction and aligned to the company goals and team goals, it's important to have accountability. Providing information in a written form which is traceable (email) helps drive accountability and provides everybody involved a point of reference to help them stay on task.

5. An email inbox can act as a rough to-do list / priority queue, and face-to-face conversations act as interrupts on that queue. While you might be "more effective" at getting the things you care about done by talking to people face-to-face, you're doing so at the expense of other things they could be spending their time on which may be higher in the priority queue for the organization. What is most important to you personally within work context may not be the most important thing to the company. Forcing a face to face conversation is taking advantage of the rules of etiquette to manipulate the priority queue.

Just a few things to take into account. I think every work environment is different, and it is also easy for us to be biased into a belief that the most effective thing for ourselves is the most effective thing for the organization. This isn't necessarily the case. Often an organization gains net efficiency by using less efficient processes at an individual level which scale more effectively and have inherent checks and balances for accountability, and email is one such case. There is a reason why email is so prolific, basically irreplaceable, and hasn't really been dethroned since it become commonplace.


Thank you. Something to think about.


This is the best advice.




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