Lighten up your e-mails

Are you suffering from e-mail overload?

Most of us do.

It’s not just the sheer numbers. Adding to the problem is that many e-mails just aren’t user-friendly.

When all e-mails are short and easy, I can work through my inbox pretty swiftly. I find that the experience changes completely when e-mails are long and difficult to read.

As I grew more aware of this in recent months, I started to put more time and care into drafting my own e-mails.

Doing so, I found a format that is really user friendly.

It is based on the fact that reading on a screen puts more strain on the eye than reading on paper.

Jakob Nielsen’s landmark eye-tracking studies from 2006 showed how this influences our reading behaviour. Instead of reading word by word, people scan the screen in an F-shaped pattern:

Nielsen’s studies were made for websites, not for e-mails, but there’s an important lesson: you have to avoid dense text.

This is because the eye only gets hooked in certain places. Large chunks of text don’t give the eye any anchors to hold on to.

Give the eye something to grab

That’s especially important in the first sentences. Your eye must be able to ‘catch’ them as you scan.

Compare these two examples of web text:

 The text on the right is easier to read.

The text on the left, by Guy Kawasaki, is very interesting but the dense format is not inviting. The lighter text is easy to ‘grab’ and that means people will read it more relaxed and with a better feeling.

I use the same technique for my e-mails

  • I start with one line — the shorter, the better.
  • I keep every paragraph to two lines, three maximum.
  • I follow a longer paragraph with a single line.
  • I try to keep sentences short.

An ideal result looks like this:

Your e-mails should be easy to read

It doesn’t look spectacular but compare it to those e-mails in your inbox that start with a big block of text: it makes a difference.

A different design

The bottom line is that an e-mail, like a web text, needs a different design than a printed text.

For example, I often start a new paragraph where I would keep the same sentences together on paper. Even though sentences belong together from a content point of view, I split them up in an e-mail, purely for the sake of easy readability.

Trying to keep it short

I also try to follow Guy Kawasaki’s recommendation: to limit the text to five sentences.

That’s not always possible but it is a great guideline to have because it forces you to treat your e-mails with greater care.

It is in the nature of any writing process that, as we write, we become more clear about what we want to say.

The result is always that the text gets shorter as we go over it a second time. It only takes a minute or two but changes everything for those on the receiving side.

So far my contribution to making our e-mail-lives easier. I’d be interested to know whether you find it helpful.

What are the tricks you use in your fight against e-mail overload? I’d love to know.

You can leave a comment below.

Thanks to Svilen Milev from Effective for making the feature image available.

About Carsten

Hi, I am Carsten Wendt. I help people make their writing more exciting. I am also a passionate public speaking coach and Humorous Public Speaking Champion of Belgium.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan March 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Hi Carsten

The header of an email is for me important. Specially when you start to search an old email and your emailprogram can search only headers.

Some headers are not written to invite the reader to read it. I do get some emails asking for support and when the header just says “error” and the body just contains an screenshot i just don’t want to help.

greets Jan


Carsten March 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Hi Jan, I almost forgot how tedious it can be to find e-mails before I switched to the Mac with its wonderful search function.

The point you raise is interesting: that you are more motivated to help if people make it easy for you. It only goes to show that it’s not just good for the receiver but also for us to take a little more care in drafting our e-mail headers and texts.


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