The Shortmail challenge

I recently set myself a challenge of writing emails that had 500 characters or less, for a week.

I’d read a blog about clear and concise business communication that mentioned Shortmail – an email service that forces you to limit emails to 500 characters (that’s characters, not words).

At the time, I was working on a communication audit for a client and, as usual, hearing how people’s email was out of control and how they were adopting the common coping mechanism of deleting without reading.

We all send emails that are too long. I’m guilty of it – particularly when I believe in something and want others to believe in it too. I put every case forward, even if I’m talking to a busy executive who is unlikely to read my ramblings.

The concept of Shortmail is that it: “puts the burden of consciousness onto the sender”. So, I decided to set myself a Shortmail challenge. For a whole week, I tried to send emails with no more than 500 characters.

The first obstacle was the Aussie tendency to exchange pleasantries. When I first moved to Australia it took me a while to get used to ‘Hello’ always being followed with ‘How are you?’ Could I drop this on email and launch straight in? Now that I’m used to it, it felt so rude. But ‘how are you?’ eats into 11 precious characters and so pleasantries were out.
I told myself it was ok, given today’s widespread use of twitter-like communication.

My first email asked someone to give up a meeting room. A potential danger zone: I’d normally explain in detail why my need is of a higher cause. Not possible in 500 characters, so I simply asked, politely. The answer was yes.

Next, an email to a designer. I’m guilty of emailing when a phone call would do and I only thought to call this person once I’d failed to say everything in the email. I called and we discussed what we needed to in one conversation, not several emails.

Another example was a client who’s also a friend. He’d asked me to quote for a piece of work and because our relationship is informal, I jumped on email and started writing. But when I couldn’t say it in 500 characters it made me question whether email was appropriate. Instead I wrote a formal proposal and attached it to a short email.

I did come unstuck writing an ‘all employee’ email for a client. It had a lot of information and I didn’t want to overload the email server with an attachment. So, while I didn’t make the 500 limit, I did get as close to it as I could by eliminating unnecessary words – some of my verbal ticks include, “I think”, “very” and “just” and by removing these alone, it made a difference.

At the end of the week my verdict was ‘tricky but liberating’. I doubt I’ll sign up to Shortmail but I will try to stick to the principle.

2,231 characters (reduced from 2,917).

Posted on August 30th, 2011.  0 Comments


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