Direct Email

May 16, 2013 by Gabe | [mmd] |

I'm certainly not a model of effectiveness but I do pride myself on a few things.1 One of those things is the direct answer. I try, given enough time to edit myself, to give a short and specific answer to a question. I try to be direct.

Here's how I attempt to edit myself in emails:

1. I do not ask for additional clarification up front unless I absolutely do not understand the question.

An answer to just the minimal question will often alleviate the need for additional clarification. When I ask a question by email and get back 6 more questions instead of an answer my head explodes. Of course this rule presumes a well written and clear question was sent in the first place.

2. If I am asking questions, they come before any exposition. The questions are limited to one sentence and are in a numbered list.

Simple questions are easier to answer. Direct questions encourage direct answers. Numbered questions make it easier to respond by referencing the questions number instead of rephrasing or pasting the original question.

3. If the recipient is not someone I have a relationship with, I include a very brief context before the questions.

A greeting should state, in one sentence, why this email deserves their attention. For example, "I'm running project NERFMONSTER and you have been identified as a business sponsor."

4. Exposition should be limited to necessary clarification only.

It's almost always better to have too little exposition than too much. Really.

5. If an email requires an attachment file, I state the requirement in the email text.

It's not obvious to everyone when there is an attachment. It's really not obvious when they are on a mobile device.

6. Use context specific language.

Jargon is useful only if the recipient understands it. Spelling out an acronym is annoying to everyone if it is a commonly used term. If I am unsure, I spell it out once with the acronym.

"1. Please provide the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the NERFMONSTER platform, including all licensing, hardware and services needed."

Email is a necessary evil of the modern world. It's the best self documenting collaboration tool I've used. But there are no rules or guidelines and it's easy to make a mess of things.


  1. The other business related things I think I don't suck at are short meetings (default meeting length is 30min), honest no-bullshit discussions and remembering that my job is just a job and at the end of the day everyone makes mistakes every single day. 

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