There's a Time and Place for Long Prose – Email Is Rarely It

By Scott Allen – Community Contributor

I love reading good prose, particularly a good narrative. Sometimes prose is called for in an email — to tell a story, explain your reasoning, provide some depth regarding your feelings on a topic, etc. Some people prefer the phone or face-to-face for those things, but in many situations, email is sufficient.

But many of the emails we send and receive every day aren’t this kind of content. They are instead heavily task-oriented — all about coordinating our work with other people. For these kind of emails, straight prose is generally a much less effective form of communication.

Over the years, as I’ve worked with people on communicating more effectively via email, I’ve observed that when people include more than one topic (even just two) in an email, all too often the recipient only replies to one of the topics. Then the sender has to reply back asking again about the overlooked issues.

Most people scan their email — they don’t read it closely. As a result, if there are action items, or items for which a specific response is expected from the other person, that needs to be clearly communicated in the email in a way that will still be effective knowing the recipient will likely just scan the email.

The solution? Numbered lists.

List each item that requires response or action with a number in front of it. You can then write a whole paragraph if you need to, but the numbered list accomplishes a couple of things:

  1. Recipients are clearer as to what’s expected of them in terms of actions and responses. They can’t claim that it was buried in the email if it was specifically enumerated.
  2. Recipients are less likely to skip an item when they respond. With the numbers, it’s easier to check for completeness of our response. If there are five items in the email, there should be five items in your response. I don’t claim this to be scientific — I just know it works.
  3. If they skip an item, it’s easier to communicate back to them about it. “Thanks for your response, but what about item #2?” No retyping — just a single simple question.

A few tips:

  1. Numbers work better than bullets. I don’t have quantitative data on this, but I can tell you that both for myself and with my clients, I first tried using bulleted lists, and that was a noticeable improvement over prose, but people still tended to skip items. But with numbered lists, skipped items in responses fall to almost zero. Apparently, without the numbers, our brain kind of loses place. Also, you lose advantage #3 above.
  2. Bolding the start of each item helps. Whether it’s complete sentences or just a phrase as a pseudo-header, bold-facing the beginning of each item improves scannability.
  3. Two items constitutes a list. How often have you sent an email with two questions for the other person and they only reply to one of them? It happens, and numbering them helps prevent it.
  4. One list item = one action item. It doesn’t do much good to create a list if each list item has two or three questions or separate actions. Break it down.

This clearly isn’t appropriate for every email, even those longer than a paragraph, but in the proper context, this has been a great tool for me and my clients in reducing email traffic and confusion. Try it for yourself and see.