Just Enough And No More

“Long enough to reach the ground”

— Abraham Lincoln, responding to the question of how long a man’s legs should be.

It’s unusual for me to work late, particularly in the summer. But last Tuesday I had no choice — I had been out of my office most of the day, and I had some things that needed finishing before the next morning.

So I pulled into Wendy’s, picked up a salad to go, and headed back to my office at about 6 PM. Everything was going as planned, until I sat down at my computer and realized my mistake: I had neglected to get a fork at Wendy’s.

Now I’m the first to admit that not having a fork should rank fairly low on any reasonable person’s list of life problems. When they release those studies that show which environmental factors detract the most from quality of life and overall well being, it’s not like you’re going to see “not enough forks” tucked in there between “street crime” and “secondhand smoke.”

That said, I have to tell you that there are few things in life less satisfying than eating a salad without a fork. And although I did eventually find a knife and spoon hidden away in my bottom desk drawer, neither was particularly helpful given my choice of dinner that night. It was while eating dinner however (with my hands), that I had the following insight: The knife, the fork and the spoon are the perfect food utensil combination.

What I mean is that although you’re limited in your food options if you don’t have all three present, once you do, you can pretty much eat anything. Functionally speaking, the three have almost no overlap, and yet when you bring them together, you’ve pretty much got your culinary bases covered (despite what your white-tablecloth-restaurant-dining in-laws might tell you, you don’t really need three different spoons and four different forks to enjoy dinner).

And when it comes to writing your E-Newsletter, I recommend you strive for this same kind of minimalist efficiency. Here’s what I mean. . .

One of the two questions I’m most often asked is,“How long should our E-Newsletter be?”* My smart-alecky answer is, “If you could write an effective newsletter in one word, that would be perfect.” Nobody wishes it took longer to get through their email, and your goal therefore, is to deliver something effective (i.e. useful, interesting, targeted), while burning as little of your readers’ time as possible.

If you upset the delicate time/value balance by moving too far in either direction (i.e. brief but useless or useful but too damn long) you’ll lose your readers. The goal is to say as much as needs to be said to get the job done, and no more. And given that almost all the newsletters I see err on the side of being too long, I offer three suggestions:

• Narrow your topic. Most newsletters try to bite off too much with each issue. The problem is that if you’re going to be useful and you’re going to be brief, you can’t cover much ground. That’s fine. Give your readers a simple, clear “a-ha” and let them get back to eating their morning bagel.

• Trim the excess. Go over what you’ve written and do your best to cut out unnecessary words and sentences. I often find when working with clients that we can eliminate entire paragraphs that add nothing of value for the reader.

• Break your paragraphs into small pieces. This doesn’t make the text any shorter, but it makes it easier and quicker for readers to jump around and find the important points. Every study that’s ever been done regarding text on a computer screen reaches the same conclusion: people don’t read, they skim — so make it easy for them.

One more thing. . . No, actually, I think I’ll just stop here.

*The other question is, “How could you possibly be the biological father of such beautiful children?”

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