The text above is from a story on the main BBC website. Notice anything interesting about it?
Notice how short the paragraphs are?
The BBC uses 1-2 sentences per paragraph—that’s it. Go check for yourself. Click on any story.
Their paragraphs are 1-2 sentences and no more. And crisp ones, too. Not the gnarly Christopher Hitchens kind.
They made this change as part of a series of studies that found when they increase paragraph length their readership drops considerably. Busy people basically look at a large paragraph and think:
This person just gave me work.
So they pass it up or delete it.
Here’s an example of a far-too-common work email paragraph:
But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?”
That was written by Cicero in 45 BC, and if he sent me anything I’d probably read it. But you’re not Cicero.
Nobody has time to read that, and if you send this type of email people will simply get in the habit of ignoring you.
Write your email the way the BBC writes their news stories: 1-2 sentences per paragraph, broken up by bullets or quotes as needed. But don’t murder people with text.
This will have two effects:
- More people will read your email
- More people will consume your ideas
The BBC has done the work for you. All you have to do is execute.
- The email style recommended here is best used for our most common interactions, e.g. making points, responding to points, and conveying basic information. For significant communications it’s quite acceptable to have longer, more classical paragraph structures.