- Four Minute University
- How to make your emails more readable
How to make your emails more readable
Avoid the wall of text
In 1956, American cognitive psychologist George Miller published findings about the human limits of processing information. Miller observed that the average person can hold 7 plus or minus 2 items in their short-term memory.
Today, it’s known as Miller’s Law.
Phone numbers are a good example of Miller’s Law. In the US, each phone number has a 3-digit area code followed by a 7-digit number.
That’s 10 digits. Miller’s Law states we can hold 5 to 9 items in our memory. What gives?
Our mind treats area codes as 1 item, not 3. You either know all numbers in an area code or none.
Notice how the phone number appears: 4057862023
Now look at these:
405 786 2023
The same information with separators is much easier to read.
This is known as chunking. It’s the easiest way to improve readability.
You’re much more likely to remember something when information is chunked.
Do I need to chunk?
Look at this tweet from billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. There are ~650 words in 1 paragraph. Don’t worry about reading all of it.
It’s almost unreadable. This is a wall of text with no visual separators.
It didn’t go without notice:
Even the smartest, most successful people have trouble making it easy for others to follow them.
Why don’t people chunk?
Most people send an email or give a presentation to communicate a point. They don’t do it to help others understand, even though they should.
They think if it makes sense to them then it must make sense to others.
As you may imagine, this is often not the case.
Tips to make your emails more readable
Use these chunking techniques to make your point clearly. You can use these in presentations as well.
Test for scanning
Remember the long tweet from above? Can you find the main points easily? Probably not (I can’t). It’s too difficult to scan through the wall of text. You have to start from the beginning each time you read it.
Before you hit send on that email, test how easy it is to scan your note and find the main points. If it takes more than a few seconds, consider rewriting your email.
One paragraph = one point
Keep paragraphs short (definitely less than 650 words). Every paragraph should have one point. If you need to make another point, use another paragraph.
Use headings and titles
I like to put headings for each point I make in an email. All you need is to put a few words in bold above your paragraph. Just like in this paragraph.
Edit, edit, edit
Most of us type from a stream of consciousness and hit send. Avoid this by reviewing and editing your message multiple times. You’d be surprised by how much crisper you can make your notes with a simple edit.
3-4 items per chunk
Pull out your credit card and look at the number. Notice how the digits are chunked. Also, notice that each chunk has 4 digits (items). The best chunk size has 3-4 items in each chunk.
Use bullets or numbered lists
When you have a lot of short snippets of information, use bullets or numbered lists instead of a paragraph. It makes it easy to scan because the bullets are aligned.
Be careful of using too many bullets (remember Miller’s Law? 7±2 items is ideal). Also, be careful not to overdo nested items under each bullet.
Group similar items
If you have too many bullets or items, find some common themes among them and group it. For each group, add a heading that describes the group.
Example: if I’m giving feedback to someone about their website, I’d put my bulleted feedback into groups such as Content, Design, Technical.
Add an image or another visual to help break up text. Be careful to only use visuals that help make your point. If the visual is not relevant, don’t use it.
TL; DR (too long; didn’t read)
The longer your text is, the less likely people will read it.
Do whatever you can to avoid the wall of text. You can use any of these tips without having to redo your message.
Thanks for reading.
See you next week,