Data Bits and Pieces

my $0.02 about data, technology, and other exciting randomness.

Thoughts about Efficient Written Communication

20 Apr 2014

This article should probably start with a warning that it is not a great example of efficient written communication and instead more of a rambling that may or may not lead to anything coherent at the end.

I send and receive a lot of emails every day at work, and in addition, our entire company communicates via a instant messaging system. The effect of this is that a lot of my daily communication is in writing.

I've noticed that individual people use very different styles. My previous boss always adhered to what I would describe as formal email etiquette. Every email started with "Hi Thomas," and it ended with "Thanks", "Regards", "Cheers", etc and my boss' name. The grammar, spelling and punctuation was always immaculate. The subject line was a well-thought-out summary of the email's content. This is the way I prefer writing emails; with perfection.

My current boss' emails are very different: An entire email could consist of 2 words (one for the subject, one for the content). The text is usually all lower-case. There is no greeting, no sign-off, he uses non-words like "asap", "tmrw", "y" (the last one is short for "yes"). I'd describe his style with maximizing the content/letter ratio.

This had an effect on how I reply to his emails, to a point where I feel bad about wasting letters in my replies. At first, the greeting went away. I suppose he knows that the email is to him, so there's no content lost. sign-off and my name at the end of the email disappeared, too. He sees the sender name anyway. I started going through already written drafts and removing unnecessary filler words, like "maybe", "sometimes", ... I still prefer correct capitalization of words, but upper-case letters don't waste any space so I suppose they can stay. All these little changes increase the content/letter ratio, but I feel like the emails are losing something else in the process: tone.

Here an example:

  1. "Hi Thomas, can you send me the file we spoke about when you get the chance? Thanks."
  2. "can u send me the file asap".

Sentence 2 saves 67.4% of letters, with (arguably) the same content. But which email would you rather get from your boss? And how much time did 2. save compared to 1.? Maybe 10 seconds? And do they matter?

Let's assume they actually do matter, and saving ten seconds here and there can add up over a whole day. And as this style presumably is the preferred way my boss writes and reads his emails (short and to the point), I adopted this format in my replies. But there's a problem: Not only do I still write my first longish email draft, but then I have to make a second pass through it to remove words again. And since I'm the type of person that is super self-critical, I probably read the email again two to three more times just to get a feeling how it may be received (does anyone else do that??). So in the end, it actually takes me a lot longer to complete the short email. One could argue that my time is more expendable than that of my boss, so there may be value in doing this, after all. But I can't stop feeling that the tone has significant value, too, and losing it devalues the email significantly.

Let's look at a 3rd version of the example sentence:

3. "Thomas, I really need this file as soon as possible. Can you send it to me straight away?"

Both sentences, 1. and 3., could reduce to number 2. But there is so much sub-text in those long sentences. The first one is a "friendly reminder" to send the file. It also has a note of curiosity as if it said "I was really interested in the file you mentioned and would like to read more." Sentence 3. has much higher urgency, and a more accusatory tone ("I already told you I need the file and you still haven't given it to me.") All this sub-conscious information gets lost in the process of compressing the sentence down to the bare content.

So this leaves me wondering if

I'll leave these questions open for now. I have a proposal in mind that I'll need to develop some more. It will make a nice second part to this post.

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