Adam Patterson | February 28th, 2014

It’s a sad truth that while e-mail has made it easier to communicate, it has also encouraged people to dash off messages without a second thought to logic or composition. Our inboxes groan with content, but zeroing in on what’s important can be akin to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

One way to make the job easier for everyone – and your messages blissfully clear – is to stick to the ‘inverted pyramid,’ as taught in journalism schools since time immemorial.

In a nutshell, this dictates that the most substantial, interesting or important information you want to convey appears at the top of the message – usually within the opening paragraph – with additional details following in descending order of importance. This was designed to allow editors to hack off the ‘tail’ of a news story to save space without worrying they may eliminate one of the more crucial bits, but is also a great model to aspire to in almost any written communication.

When deciding which information or requests to prioritise, consider taking another page from the journalism handbook – addressing as many of the big ‘W’ questions – who, what, when, why — as quickly and directly as possible. With an e-mail requesting feedback on a project for example, have your e-mail answer – who do you want to provide it? What specific feedback are you requesting? When do you need a response? Ideally, the ‘why’ will be self-evident.

None of this is to say one should agonize over every e-mail, or clobber recipients over the head with a bit of bad news straightaway. But giving a message some structure boosts its chances of achieving the desired results – and will insure it stands out from the sometimes indecipherable, stream-of-consciousness missives that dominate so many inboxes.

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