by Paul T. Cottey

Follow the ‘no scroll’ rule with email

Jun 12, 2017
Email ClientsIT Leadership

Here are some rules to follow when using email to communicate at work. Rule No. 1: Be concise; email messages should fit on a single screen.

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Credit: Creatas/Thinkstock

My boss’s boss, circa 1995

Earlier in my career, my employer used an old voicemail system (Octel, if you are flashing back with me) that, at the start of a voicemail, would report the time a message was sent and who sent it. Nonetheless, one morning I apparently left a message saying, “Hi, it’s Paul. I hope you had a good weekend. It’s Monday morning at 7, and want to get together this afternoon to talk about .”

The response I got back was, “1 p.m. in my office. Leave shorter voicemails.”

I was recently reminded of that feedback I got more than 20 years ago when a fellow CIO described her “no scroll” rule. The rule is simple: Email messages (at least those sent to her) should fit on a single screen. If an email is longer than that, then email is not the right mechanism to communicate the situation. She described getting six-page (!!) emails, and since six pages is obviously too long, I decided to generalize the rules.

When you are communicating via email, think about what you want to say and determine that email is the right medium. We all know not to email when angry, but we probably do need to learn that email is a better medium for confirming than it is for convincing.

Once you believe email is the right means to communicate, follow these rules:

  • Be concise. Think about what response you want and what you need to communicate to get to that response.
  • Edit if you have to. For an important email, go back and reread what you have written. What would the reader see without scrolling? How would it look on a cellphone? If you need to rearrange or tighten it up, do so. If you don’t have time to go back and reread the message, ask yourself if the message is so simple that there is no need to reread it or if you are rushing out an answer.
  • Break the chain. If you find that the number of people on the email To: and cc: lines is multiplying, re-reconsider whether email is the right medium. If you need to read six preceding messages for “context,” consider whether everyone else is going to make that effort.
  • Don’t skip the pleasantries. If you really do hope someone had a good weekend, you may say so. Remember, however, that the person is only going to devote so much time to your message, so be judicious.
  • Think before you send. Are you likely to get the response you want?

I can’t say that you’ll never need to write an email that requires a scroll, but if you are going to ask your reader to scroll, decide whether email is the right medium for your message