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The 2009 Email Brevity Challenge


2009-email-brevity-challenge

Are you on Twitter? Have you perfected the art of communicating a lot in a few characters? Well how about putting that talent to good use, making the lives of your co-workers better ?

I’m talking about…

THE 2009 EMAIL BREVITY CHALLENGE

What’s that? Simple, really:

Keep your company emails to 140 characters or less.

Now let me tell you a little more about this.

It All Started with a Tweet

I trade tweets with Jennifer Leggio (@mediaphyter). Well, one morning we had this exchange:

Hutch: Are you a long form twitterer? I often hit 140+ characters in my tweets, and spend time cutting them back.

Jennifer: Yup. I think it’s made me more succinct in other mediums, too.

Hutch: You’re right about Twitter making us more succinct. You know where I’m seeing it most? In my emails, of all things.

Jennifer: I wonder if I should challenge myself to only send 140-character emails in 2009? hehe

Hutch: That’d actually be a great challenge. Make your emails max out at 140 characters. Recipients would be thankful.

Jennifer: Let’s do it. In some cases (i.e. work emails requiring tons of back-up) it might be hard, but I’ll shoot for 50 percent.

From that conversation, Jennifer wrote Micro-emailing: The 2009 email brevity challenge on her ZDNet blog Feeds. As she says there:

We understand that some emails need to be longer than 140 characters (I’m not sure my boss would appreciate it if I sent her multiple 140-character emails when she needs a detailed project report). For the rest of the emails, however, we’re going to try and give our co-workers’ weary eyeballs a break. More than that, we are going to start logging these communications and tracking monthly the average number of a characters we use in our sent work-related emails. I’ll post monthly reports here on this blog.

And there you have it.

Reducing Our Dependence on Corporate Email

Consider this little resolution another strike against our overreliance on email. IBM’s Luis Suarez has been quite an advocate for reducing the volume of emails inside companies (see Giving up on Work e-mail – Status Report on Week 46 (Living without Email – One Man’s Story. Are you Next?). He has an ongoing quest to eliminate email in his daily job. He actually did that during Christmas week, as he reports:

It has taken me 46 weeks, but I have finally made it! I have finally been able to prove the point that you can go by a week without using e-mail, but social software, and still get the job done!

And upon seeing this challenge for email brevity, he offered this:

@bhc3 Absolutely! And more than happy as well to help promote it as part of the continued weekly progress reports s haring further insights

If you’re forced to be briefer with your emails, there are a couple outcomes. First, those epic emails are reduced. That probably is welcome news to a lot of workers. Second, it highlights the proper place for many email discussions: wikis, blogs, Yammer, forums, etc. You can use email more for notifications and links to the place where the longer form thinking/discussion/collaboration is occurring.

To participate in this initiative, you only need to do three things:

  1. Add a comment to Jennifer’s blog post
  2. Keep tabs on the character count of your emails (I’ll probably paste ‘em in Word, run a character count)
  3. Keep it light, low pressure. It’s an interesting experiment.

I particularly encourage you to try this out if you’re interested in Enterprise 2.0. What better way to put into practice what we all see as the future of social software inside organizations?

And drop me a comment if you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22The+2009+Email+Brevity+Challenge%22&who=everyone

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

50 Responses to The 2009 Email Brevity Challenge

  1. Aden Davies says:

    Sounds like a great idea. how about just using the subject line of the email and then using [EOM] at the end…a little bit old school but you don’t even need to open the mail then, just browse the inbox.

  2. Luis Suarez says:

    Hi Hutch! Great blog post & we are ON! I am waiting for a couple of things to happen on http://www.elsua.net (Hopefully today!) and then will be more than happy to help promote the challenge and share some further insights on it! But I am more than happy to join you guys with it, as I, too, feel it’s about time we stop all of those endless (And pointless) e-mails that take us nowhere! Done with them!

    Let’s keep it simple, straight to the point! Let’s do it! Thanks for putting together this follow up blog post, too! :-)

  3. glhoffman says:

    Sounds like a great idea. I had a similar idea a few days ago with a six word resume meme over at http://www.whatwoulddadsay.com.
    some funny and awesome ideas there.

  4. Luis Suarez says:

    @Aden, that’s a great idea! In fact you could then treat your inbox like a river flow, instead of a lake and drowning on it! And we could give consecutive pages (Page down, in this case) the same attention we do with Twitter pages, for instance. Moving on with the flow where the flow takes us… Nifty!

  5. I’m in … the thing I’ve noticed about Twitter too is that you can always link to more detailed content or reports – i.e. link to other social media sites as you mention such as Yammer, Blogs, internal WIkis, etc.

  6. Sally Church says:

    Great idea, Hutch! I too have been following Elsua’s progress and have managed to:

    a) reduce the volume of biz emails I get and
    b) write shorter notes (one liners) when I absolutely have to.

    I’m happy to join the challenge!

  7. I’m game. Any email over 140 characters will link to a wiki page via tinyurl.

  8. Jon DiPietro says:

    E gads, no!! For the love of the English language, please stop this insanity (with all due respect). I am sick to death of emails that are too short, too hurried, too informal, too sketchy, too colloquial, and (most irritatingly) too “texty”. By all means, U R GTG w/ shorthand while texting or Tweeting. However, when you send me an email please feel free to spell out that agonizingly long word, “you,” to add in a period here and there, and to include a subject and verb in each sentence. Is that too much to ask? Am I being too snobby?

    I see your point and agree that there is some discipline to be gleaned from Twitter. I’m not in favor of rambling emails either, but at least from my personal experience the converse is a much, much greater problem. When emails are too short or imprecise, it requires multiple email exchanges to obtain clarification which, in the end, chews up far more time than either composing or reading a slightly longer email in the first place.

    Just my 0.2 FWIW. ;)

  9. Rooney says:

    Maybe I am the only one that giggles at the irony of reading a blog post of a few hundred words and thousands of characters asking that we try limit our e-mail correspondence to 140 (sorry, one hundred forty).

    What about on conference calls…think of all the time you can save by asking that participants speak in tweets and cut them off when they reach one hundred forty characters. Oh, and in schools too. Why should written assignments exceed one hundred forty characters? Students, please summarize the downfall of Macbeth in one hundred forty characters or less…I will deduct a point for each character over one hundred forty to a minimum grade of zero.

    I’m amazed that rational people think that brevity, defined apparently as one hundred forty characters or less, somehow is equal to effective communication.

    How about this for corporate e-mail discipline…if you’ve got less than one hundred forty characters of something to tell me, just keep it to yourself.

  10. Aden – love the idea of the subject line being the message body of the email. That very much hits on the forced brevity angle. I’ll add that one could embed a link to a wiki page or something in that email so people can read further.

  11. Luis – glad to see you here. I’ve been reading about your no-email efforts for a while, glad I could plug into your thinking. It occurred to me that brief emails and no-emails are pretty similar in the world of social software. Use emails more for notifications than for long-form writing.

  12. Hutch – interesting thought, I agree with the “KISS” principle, but I agree with Jon above. I’ve seen too many kids these days who can’t put a coherent sentence together. Nicholas Carr also wrote about how we can’t stay focused past a paragraph, but do we want to continue down the path where we can’t wrap our heads around some deeper thoughts? Maybe I’ve read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 too many times…

  13. zyxo says:

    Subject line as the message is a good idea. I like to keep my emails short and few in numbers and reading this comments I realise that sometimes my email body is short enough to put it in the subject.
    What I will do from now on.
    Thanks for the suggestion.

  14. The whole idea here is indeed intriguing.

    I agree with Jon DiPietro’s comment, mostly.

    As additional points, short emails of 140 chars (or so) often:
    * are non-answers or major assumptions of fact/knowledge,
    * cause more team confusion/frustrations/irritations,
    * encourage less knowledge share and accountability,
    * ultimately can cause less productivity.

    Or, arrogance is sometimes the perception (whether rightful or not).

    Execs often practice this brevity style – which is bad/good, in my experience.

    * The bad: it can become a game of perceptions – say less, expose yourself less. Be less connected and keep a distance. Also, be less liable.
    * The good: say less and empower your team (if they take the ball, hopefully). Encourage to the point messaging.

    Twitter works b/c it is constrained physically but also b/c of Tiny URL refs. Twitter works since it is public and b/c people, in general, are trying to be helpful and perceived in good light.

    That said, in my opin – Bill’s comment is indeed the right answer which takes the best of the best from the “Twitter model”, if you think about it.

    Shorts, with public links to more valuable, more thought through, more polished shared content, yet only when needed/relevant.

    Just getting people to think WHERE and HOW to share info is a challenge enough of good email habits, I think.

    (I didn’t make the 140 char cut. no surprise.. ergh!)

  15. Luis Suarez says:

    RE: “use emails for notifications rather than long-form writing”, yes, indeed, that’s exactly what I have been advocating all along and why I still think email has got a place in the corporate world, mainly for 1:1 interactions. For the rest, OUT of the inbox and into its proper channel, because email may not be the best option altogether. Glad we are in sync on that one!

    @Rooney, LOL!!! I knew you would comment with something like, but you would have to agree that long, extensive emails would probably have its place in much more suitable team spaces, specially if they involve more than one individual, so it wouldn’t be too bad to adopt this approach, would it? ;-)

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  17. Hi Rooney – I understand your point about the irony of a long blog post advocating brief emails. But in my mind, that’s actually really consistent with the idea.

    I’m not saying we drop long-form writing. Not at all. Otherwise I’d switch to a Tumblr blog. Rather, the idea is that some of the best thinking, information and discussions occur in email. But it’s not accessible to a wider audience. How about if you move that longer form writing to a wiki or a blog? Emails then become like tweets. An attention call + some context, with a link.

    Which is how I tweeted the link to this blog post: “Serious about Enterprise 2.0? Tired of long emails? Join the 2009 Email Brevity Challenge http://bit.ly/I1kO @mediaphyt er @elsua”

  18. Rooney says:

    I don’t know Hutch…it’s not that I disagree ( completely ) with the idea that it could be more effective to post content in a blog or wiki, but rather I don’t get the fascination with the one hundred forty character limit. The limit exists in Twitter only because they wanted SMS support…it’s not some derived best practice for effective communication style.

    So, let’s say a colleague of mine sends me a work related e-mail, but instead of containing the actual content it’s just a tweet-style quip with a URL to a blog where they’ve posted the long form. Why am I any better off? If the individual can’t construct a thoughtful e-mail that conveys their point of view effectively, how are they going to be any more successful in a blog post. Haven’t we all read blog posts and comments that are just as inane, lengthy and uninformative? “It’s a terrific essay, you just need fewer characters ( http://bit.ly/toomanynotes )”.

    @Luis I actually don’t agree that e-mail is only effective for one-to-one communication nor that all multi-person exchanges should be outside of e-mail…but then you and I have had that debate before..no need to go over that again .

  19. Luis Suarez says:

    @Rooney, yes, we did have that debate and probably we wouldn’t go that way this time around, but over time, and while I have embarked on that new reality of not having to worry about e-mail. I am more convinced by the day that the way people keep abusing the system, i.e. email, will never help to recover back again what it once was: an effective method of communication. No, I don’t see that happening anymore and doubt we would ever do, so that’s why I decided to jump outside of my Inbox and taste the other waters. They are warm enough for me to stay longer. To be honest.

    Mainly, because of various different points, one of which Hutch reflected quite nicely on: “Emails then become like tweets. An attention call + some context, with a link”.

    Perhaps it is all a matter of helping re-educate folks on how to use collaboration, knowledge sharing and communication tools in a corporate environment. Yet, I don’t see that happening any time soon …

  20. Aden Davies says:

    It should be about getting information out of the inbox…as Hutch says email should become an ‘An attention call + some context, with a link’ anything longer than that should be in a document, or a wiki or a blog post i.e. public. obviosuly there will be exceptions i.e. private messages but it is the majority of email that needs killing for the greater good of improved communications

  21. Hey Jon -

    Now that’s interesting – you get too many short cryptic emails? Yeah, that fits what Arrington called “grunts” in Twitter (http://bit.ly/n1oL). Boy I’d hope for one’s career that those would be avoided.

    And certainly long emails, with back-n-forth, are appropriate for private conversations.

    The point here is that a lot of those longer emails/email threads occur because email is the default application for people. But what suffers is the ability for wider access to valuable conversations, and the ability to reference them in one’s own work. When they’re trapped in the in-box, their value is stunted as well.

  22. telesaur says:

    I use tags in subject lines, meaning “end of message.” No body required!

  23. telesaur says:

    It would be great if someone could make a character count/limit add-on for Thunderbird!

  24. telesaur says:

    [eom] = end of message

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  26. siamhothit says:

    My office stay on the thailand and use the exchange 2005, it use more than 140 characters…

  27. promote says:

    Story like a great idea. how about just using the subject line and body of the email and then using [EOM] at the end.

  28. diggma says:

    Story like a great idea. how about just using the subject line and body of the email and then using [EOM] at the end.
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  29. Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info.And this is http://www.bookmarkth.com site. It pretty much covers DoFollow Social Bookmark related stuff.

  30. I use tags in subject lines, meaning “end of message.” No body required! thanks.

  31. use tags in subject lines, meaning “end of message.” No body required!

  32. agel says:

    How to add the subject line more then 140 character and Can it support the Unicode?

  33. ezDigg says:

    I like to keep my emails short and few in numbers and reading this comments I realise that sometimes my email body is short enough to put it in the subject.

  34. Story like a great idea. how about just using the subject line and body of the email and then using [EOM] at the end.

  35. Afiza says:

    I missed it.

  36. I use tags in subject lines, meaning “end of message.” No body required!

  37. mazda3 says:

    My office stay on the thailand and use the exchange 2005, it use more than 140 characters…

  38. I use tags in subject lines, meaning “end of message.” No body required!

  39. mazda3 :
    My office stay on the thailand and use the exchange 2005, it use more than 140 characters…

    thx

  40. Hutch – interesting thought, I agree with the “KISS” principle, but I agree with Jon above. I’ve seen too many kids these days who can’t put a coherent sentence together. Nicholas Carr also wrote about how we can’t stay focused past a paragraph, but do we want to continue down the path where we can’t wrap our heads around some deeper thoughts? Maybe I’ve read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 too many times…

  41. seo says:

    How to add the subject line more then 140 character and Can it support the Unicode?

  42. It would be great if someone could make a character count/limit add-on for Thunderbird!

  43. silly bandz says:

    My office stay on the thailand and use the exchange 2005, it use more than 140 characters…

  44. agel says:

    twitter is small space to share.

  45. AGEL says:

    more than 140 characters… but it power of media

  46. agel says:

    facebook and twitter is best place to share too

  47. Agel says:

    No Comment !

  48. indysong says:

    I just Like it.

  49. i like it.

  50. nice, I like it. thanks.

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