Master the Art of Email with the Five-Sentence Rule


Ever sent an email to an important client that had the wrong information, or a silly typo? Don't worry - you're not alone. Email horror stories are quite common - perhaps you mixed up your clients' names and sent the wrong quotation, or asked a famous TVB News anchor to attend an event that happened the previous year? Everyone is bound to make this mistake at least once in their working life! It only takes that one embarassing email that leaves you red-faced in embarassment to be more careful next time.

According to the 2018 Adobe Consumer Email Survey, those aged 25 to 34 years old spend on average 6.4 hours just checking their emails, and over 30% of them check their inbox before going to bed. We might feel the necessity to check our emails SO much because we receive on average 121 emails a day, and have over 500 unread ones sitting in our mailbox!

So much of our time at work is probably spent around reading and writing emails - we most likely have a love-hate relationship with them. They have revolutionised communication and we’ve come a long way since sending pigeons and writing letters, but its come to the point they can often be time-draining, an energy sap, and possibly take over our lives – are we living an "email hell"? Are you staying up late into the night writing long, detailed-orientated and information-rich emails which in reality, never get read and aren't even effective? Can you imagine spending all that time writing an eloquent email sharing your thoughts, for it to just be skimmed or ignored? This is why you need to escape the email hell by mastering the art of writing emails to be more efficient in the workplace.

The Five-Sentence Rule

As the name suggests, this rule limits the length of emails to five key sentences only. Some followers of this rule even go the extra mile and pay homage to the rule by adding "to respect both your time and mine, I will limit my email to five sentences" in their signature! Productivity expert and author Chris Bailey is one of them, saying that if you find it difficult to say everything in five sentences, you should pick up the phone. Workplace strategy expert and author Leigh Stringer also supports this, saying we are probably using the wrong communication tool if our email is too long.

How to Use the Five Sentence Rule

  • Understand your purpose: Why are you writing this email? How do you expect the recipient to respond? What information does the other party need? What information is unnecessary? Understanding why you are writing the email allows you to stay organised and draft the email in your head before typing it out.

  • Introduce yourself: Is this the first correspondence on the topic? Are you starting a new email chain? If so, introduce yourself, which company you are from and what you do etc.. If you have met them before, briefly recount the occasion to refresh the other party’s memory.

  • Clarify your goal: Why are you emailing this person? You might be asking about something, reporting an incident, or even selling a product you think the other party might be interested in. Whatever the reason, be clear about it at the beginning of the email.

  • Expected response: You didn't send an email just for the recipient to just read it, right? Explain politely how you want the person to respond. If you wish to be replied by a certain date, don't forget to include that!

  • Avoid ambiguity: "I am unsure if", "probably", and "perhaps" are ambiguous phrases that do not promote efficient communication. If anything, you might appear unconfident using these phrases. So be confident, use assertive and polite words to be direct with your communication.

  • Avoid open-ended questions: "What do you think about the increase in sales this month?", "What can we do to maintain the figure?" These questions sound like something worthy of a meeting. If your question would take at least half an hour to discuss, how would it be possible to talk about it through email? Try raising the question in your email, and ask the recipient(s) if they are free to discuss it over a phone call or coffee. Also don't forget to suggest possible date and time for this!


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Sophia Wong

Brand and Marketing Strategist in Hong Kong, writes about career, job hunting and interview tips.

3 min read

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