The London Hotel’s breakfast really wasn’t anything to write home about. It was evident that the great English breakfast produced by the hotel had not been shown the patriotic love the name suggests. I concentrated on my coffee instead.
I was on a work sponsored training course in London. The course involved many people from many different companies across Europe. As one of my fellow pupils, Sebastian, sat down opposite me, he pulled out his Blackberry and was just about to start reading emails over his breakfast, when we made eye contact. Not wanting to be rude he explained that his daily routine would often revolve around getting email at breakfast.
“I get so much of it, that it is important to check it in the morning so I’m on top of it”.
I knew that feeling well. I have had jobs were I would receive 100s of emails a day. We started a game of “my inbox is bigger than yours”, recounting the horrible moments after a day or two away when your inbox would particularly dominate your working day. In the middle of this conversation Sebastian mentioned,
“I often get emails from co-workers that are about really important issues, but are badly worded, and I spend time rewriting them, so I can send them on to my boss”
“You know, I’ve heard of a solution to that” I said.
Dan, one of my old bosses, had once been an editor for the MIT student paper; with his experience of journalism, Dan had a different approach to email than most.
Most of us write emails in the same format as the essays we used to write at college. We naturally write most of our emails following a “fact, fact, fact… conclusion” structure. When you haven’t got much time to read an email that can be annoying. As a reader you’ve got to read the entire email, right to the bottom before you know what you have to do. That can include a lot of detail that is interesting, but is not important to you as the reader.
Dan explained the “Inverted Pyramid” writing style used by journalists. Take any given newspaper article, now read the headline and the first paragraph. There in the first few words are 90% of the information in the article. The remainder of the article goes into further detail explaining the points in the introductory paragraph, but you don’t have to read them to understand what is going on. The majority of the information is there in the first few lines.
Unless you studied journalism it is unlikely that you will have heard of this approach.
As my manager pointed out, he didn’t have time to read all of the email. However writing in the “Inverted Pyramid” allowed him to easily understand what was happening and respond more quickly to any requests.
I shared this story with Sebastian and the two of us started to wonder if there were any tools that would help us write in this style. More importantly a tool which would also encourage other co-workers to adopt the same style too.
Before we could reach a conclusion the conversation was cut short; I had to depart early and head to the airport.