We’ve all been there: staring at our compose or reply screen, agonizing over whether a business email is too long, too short, or just right. Given that a typical office worker sends at least 40 emails a day, that quickly turns every email you write into a stressful balancing act.
However, there is a just-right length to email: 50–200 words.
Do your emails tend to be longer? Writing shorter messages can actually help you be more productive with email, decrease your inbox stress, and consistently send the right message.
The problems with emails that are too long or too short
The problems are two-fold.
- Don’t get read
- The details get lost
- Cover too much information
If someone wants to read a novel, they’ll get a book. They don’t want one glaring at them from their inbox.
However, the other extreme—terse emails of only a few words—can as problematic.
Emails that are too short:
- Can come off as curt or snippy
- Might contain too little information to be clear
- Lead to unnecessary further emails
The key problem with massive or terse emails is that they leave the recipient unsure of what to do next. Lack of clarity stops productivity, leading to stress, wasted time, and tension between team members.
Luckily, all of this is also preventable.
How to keep business emails understandable and the right length
Each day you may be emailing a range of people, including your manager and fellow team members, customers, or prospects. Sometimes you’re initiating a conversation, sometimes you have a simple message to convey, and sometimes your email is part of an ongoing string of messages.
In addition to setting up your concise email with an appropriate greeting, solid bottom line intro and a call to action closing, formatting options are useful tools to enhance your email’s readability.
No matter who you’re writing, a few tips can help you keep any email understandable—and a good length.
For starters, that 50 to 200 word length we mentioned at the top? That helps you focus on the core message your email needs to send. You want your email long enough to be clear, but short enough to prevent the point from getting lost.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Use up to five short paragraphs of up to three sentences per paragraph.
- White space aids screen readability, so double-space between paragraphs.
- Keep sentences to 15 words or less.
- Use numbered or bulleted lists to make information scannable and digestible.
- Bold, italics, colors, and font sizes can help you break up the message into digestible, visually distinct chunks.
- Use your email’s quote text function to visually set off text you are quoting.
- Keep your email to one primary point, purpose, request, or call to action.
Why should most business emails be 50 to 200 words?
Our recommendation of 50 to 200 words is based in part on an analysis of 40 million emails. (That analysis also concluded that an optimum sweet spot for sales emails was 50 to 125 words, but our broader guideline allows for a greater range of correspondence, where you may need some more room to work.)
When there’s a call to action, such as a link to click, keeping emails to 200 words or less also had a response rate over 50 percent and generally showed the highest click-through rates. Based on their research analyzing marketing and sales emails from over two million clients, email and social marketing service Constant Contact also concluded that the best interaction, response, and click-through came from emails that were no more than 20 lines of text.
These studies also found fall-offs in response and click-through for those too-long and too-short emails—no more than a 36 percent response rate for emails 10 words or fewer.
Set and maintain the right voice and tone
A warmer tone can also help your emails be both more concise and more effective. That doesn’t mean having to spend lots of top-of-the-message time on pleasantries either.
An easy fix is making sure that you are writing with “active voice” instead of “passive voice.” Check out the difference:
Passive voice: “A 2 p.m. meeting has been scheduled and you have been requested to attend so that you can make your presentation.”
Active voice: “I scheduled the meeting for 2 p.m. Could you attend so we can hear your presentation?”
Not only does the active voice convey the same message in fewer words, it also comes across as both warmer and more confident.
Another easy fix? Note the “could you” in the example above. “Could you” or “would you” are concise, easy, companionable constructions that can make even a task or assignment feel like more of a team request to the recipient.
If you are replying to a request or dealing with a problem, show your can-do, team-player, get-it-done attitude with a simple “I’ll be glad to,” “I’d love to help with that,” or “I’ll take care of that right away.” These are easy ways to demonstrate that you are taking charge and dealing with the issue at hand, while also showing that you care about the person making the request or bringing the problem to your attention.
Your email should have one purpose
We’ve all received emails that ping-pong from point to point, request to request, demand to demand. And you know what those emails are?
Emails like that molder in the inbox. The workday has too much to do to justify all that time decoding one email.
In short, what you compose should stick to one purpose, be that a request, a point to get across, a task, or similar. When your email focuses on one thing, it’ll be much easier to have your email hit that sweet spot of being concise yet clear.
Start with the bottom line
This suggestion can both make total sense yet feel completely counterintuitive.
After all, we try to be conversational and cordial in any communication, including email. It can feel brusque to immediately start with the main point, instead of taking a paragraph to convey pleasantries.
However, business is about communications that are effective, not just courteous. Even if it seems strange, start your email with the main point, or as it’s also called, B.L.O.T. (bottom line on top).
This principle also helps you stay on task. It’s easier to write a right-sized business email when you have stated—and can plainly see—the main point of the email.
No unnecessary words
In verbal communication, pleasantries and puffery can help smooth initial dialogue. In an email, though, those niceties don’t translate as well—and can prevent your core message from getting across.
When writing a business email, aim to keep your language tight and concise. Not only will your message be clear and trim, but it’ll also come across as more confident and authoritative too.
Close with a call to action
Studies like the ones mentioned above also found that having a call to action was another way to boost response and engagement.
Most emails need the recipient to take some sort of action, such as replying, answering a question, clicking on a link, setting up an appointment, and so on. When your email needs the recipient to do something, include that call to action near the end of the email. That way the recipient has processed the message, and they see clearly there is a next step they now need to take.
Your call to action can also help you think about what you want to say in your email. Just as you can begin your email with the bottom line, you can close with the call to action, and use the rest of the email to connect and reinforce the two.
Closing with a question or other call to action can be a powerful way to finish your email, and make it more likely that you’ll get back a good response.
Save pleasantries for the end
Want to ask about someone’s family or wish them a good weekend or holiday? Save it for your final line, not up top.
Closing with a simple pleasantry or two humanizes your tone, reinforces some baseline courtesy, and helps your email end on a good note.
Use a different tool
All of this said, sometimes you hit compose or reply, and there is just no way you can manage a concise email. And that’s a good thing to recognize. Why?
Because when that happens, it means email isn’t the right tool for the job at hand.
Sometimes it’s best to shut the inbox and fire up Slack, pick up the phone, or have a face-to-face chat. And that’s okay. Email is but one powerful communications tool in today’s work toolbox. Sometimes an email is perfect. Sometimes other ways to communicate are just what you need to help you get the message across and hear the other side quickly and comprehensively.
Whenever you do need to write one of those dozens of business emails you’re sending every day, now you’ll be prepared to have each email be warm, clear—and just the right length.
Posted in: Email