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Eureka Moments in Email History

Posted Mar 18, 2013, by Roy Speed

Eureka moments in email history
The latest "great idea" for making email more efficient comes from ousted Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, who tweeted on February 25: "Possible to write a gmail script to autoreply & bounce emails longer than fifty words?" -- In other words, he's suggesting a 50-word limit for emails.

Mason's tweet had two immediate effects:

  • A software engineer at Groupon came up with such a script for gmail.
  • A blogger at Mashable.com named Todd Wasserman declared "Limiting Email to 50 Words a Great Idea."

For my own part, I'm trying to contain my excitement.

History
Andrew Mason and Todd Wasserman are not the first to declare being brief in email a good idea. No, their particular contribution is wanting to impose on email an arbitrary length.

If all this sounds familiar, well, it should. There's an entire email service based on imposing a 500-character limit. Someone else wanted to impose a three-sentence limit. Just in case three sentences wasn't the right length, the same person came up with two-, four-, and five-sentence standards.

Each of these brilliant ideas was greeted by the press with breathless enthusiasm: "Email Overload Fix," declared TechCrunch; "Shortmail... Forces Conciseness," said Fast Company. And the press weren't the only ones who got excited: for its 500-character limit, Shortmail.com secured $750,000 of VC funding and began calling itself "The conciseness company."

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the business world has simply gone about its business. After all, none of these suggestions represent deep thinking about business email.

Defining the problem
Business email is best understood as a community problem: each individual's productivity is affected by all the other individuals in that person's "community" -- his or her department, division, or company. Employee inboxes fill each day with ill-conceived and poorly written emails, which those employees must then process, handle, and often respond to -- often inflicting badly written emails on their own staff, colleagues, or superiors. For email in organizations, in other words, no employee is a solo act.

For this reason, any successful initiative must address the entire email community, ideally the entire company. To be successful, moreover, such an initiative must have two major components -- all staff must be equipped and trained for:

  • efficient handling and processing -- speeding up their email processing and eliminating wasteful behaviors;
  • effective writing -- generating lean messages that are easy to read and digest, easy to respond to.

Business email comes in a thousand flavors, so the methods rolled out to staff must be smart and flexible, lending themselves to hundreds of different communication functions and business results. For large organizations, the stakes are huge, and given the complexity of this challenge, arbitrary limits on email length -- whether 500 characters or three sentences -- are at best simplistic and naive.

You'd think Fast Company and TechCrunch would know better.

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