Andrew Ingram writes: Dear Jeremy, I recently went on a course in business-writing and we were told that, according to Guy Kawasaki, an e-mail should have five sentences: ‘Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time.’ I have been trying this recently, but I’m not sure it’s working. What do you think?
I’d always thought that Kawasaki was an extremely unpleasant autoimmune disease more commonly known as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome. Either that or a motorbike. But I now understand he’s an evangelist, whatever that might mean. In any case, he’s wrong.
The only rules about writing that need to be observed are rules of form. If you don’t follow the rules for a sonnet or a haiku, you won’t have written one. Everything else is up to you.
An e-mail itemising the repairs needed in a 20-room mansion that has been flooded for eight weeks on the Somerset Levels might find the Kawasaki limit of five sentences a bit too
Equally, "Hi, Daisy. I love you. Jake" seems pretty good to me. Hardly deserving of: "Hi, Jake. Your e-mail was abrupt and rude. Kindly resend expressing identical sentiment but in five sentences. Daisy."
Because people think they’re easy to write, and because they’re free, almost all e-mails display evidence of laziness. Slapdashery rules. Many more are too long than are too short. There are times when I think to myself: "Please, please, will someone please send me an e-mail that’s abrupt and rude."
Depending on how many long ones I use, these columns contain between 680 and 720 words.
Sometimes I write too many – whereupon the excellent Michael Porter, the managing editor, or one of his excellent assistants, asks me to cut some. When I do, the column is invariably improved; but I suppose there must be a limit. If I cut 650, you might find it a little on the abrupt side; rude, almost.
I’m a reasonably right-on man working in a team dominated by women. I have no problem with that. But I do let slip the occasional sexist remark. Nothing vicious or personal, just blokeish joshing. Do I really need to submit myself for reprogramming or should the women around me just grow a pair?
I’m sorry to have to tell you this – but, on the evidence of this one question, you’re not cut out to be in advertising.
You confidently claim that the occasional sexist remark that you occasionally let slip is neither vicious nor personal. If you were any good at advertising, you’d know that this is a judgment you’re not qualified to make.
You may hope it’s not vicious; you may know that you didn’t intend it to be vicious; you will comfort yourself in the knowledge that none of your male mates found it to be vicious; but, if any one of the women working in your team found it vicious, then vicious it was. And it was all your fault.
When presented with the results of some qualitative research, which conclusively demonstrate that not one of the respondents caught your brilliantly creative allusion to Romeo And Juliet, I bet you shout and rage and demand a recount. Because you haven’t yet learned that, when your audience fails to respond as you hoped they would respond, that failure is not theirs: it’s yours.
This is no new thought. I doubt it was new in 1923, when Aldous Huxley wrote: "It is far easier to write ten passably effective sonnets… than one effective advertisement. In writing a sonnet, one need think only of oneself. If one’s readers find one boring or obscure, so much the worse for them. But in writing an advertisement, one must think of other people."*
So why don’t you try thinking of other people for a change? Try putting yourself in other people’s shoes. What’s blokeish joshing to you is not so much offensive as deeply, grindingly tedious to others. And when they sense that your solution to this problem is that they should "grow a pair", they will despair of you for good; not just as a human being but as a competent colleague. And they will be absolutely right in doing so.
*On The Margin, Aldous Huxley, 1923. (With thanks to Harry Shaw.)
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