Three Signs Your Email Thread is Too Long

“This should have been an email” is one of the most popular rants in workplace communication these days. We are overwhelmed with meetings, and many of them lead nowhere, so we look for less costly methods of communication. Email, we believe, is one of them. But emails come at a cost too. Email is far from being the best means of communication in every case and for every purpose. And that’s especially true as an email thread becomes longer.

Long email threads are harder to follow and engage with. While we believe the cost of each email is too small to consider, the impact of an endless thread is severe. The distractions it creates and the inability to conduct a deep and coherent discussion are just two penalties of long email threads, which directly impact our ability to promote our goals and co-create.

The key is knowing when email as a communication means fails to deliver and to switch to a different communication method. When your email thread becomes too long, even a face-to-face meeting is often more effective (despite the bad rap).

Here are three signs your email thread has become ineffective:

Too Many People are Engaged in the Conversation

It sounds counterintuitive. Isn’t it a good sign that many people on the distribution list are involved in the discussion? Doesn’t it mean we found the right people to communicate with and that the email thread is meaningful? Well, yes and no. The problem with an energized discussion with many participants is not in the debate itself but in the platform we use to conduct it. Email is one of the worst platforms for deep and highly involved discussions.

Email as a platform is great when you are announcing something and don’t expect a response. It could work for one-on-one discussions (but read on for a sign that it doesn’t). But when it comes to an active conversation between three or more people, email quickly becomes an unmanageable mess. Unlike a real-time discussion, with email, there is an inherent delay between each statement or question and the response. But while the dialogue might be relatively easy to follow when two people are involved in it, when a reply can arrive even after multiple other issues have been raised, a single email soon contains various interwoven logical threads. It is literally like following and managing numerous dialogues in parallel.

Creative Coloring and Indentation

The second sign is often a side effect of many people “speaking” together in a single email thread. But now and then, even one-on-one correspondence can deteriorate to look like a paintball arena.

It starts with “please see my response in [pick your favorite color or a color not used already by others].” And it ends with a psychedelic scene of colors, initials, and various degrees of text indentation, hopelessly designed to help one navigate the conversation. This might be the best proof that email is not designed for a group conversation, but I had plenty of one-on-one exchanges that ended up with a similar look and feel.

Strange color coding and indentation enable us to see the problem with email threads visually: the conversation is fractured. Following the line of thought of each participant is extremely difficult. Articulating a coherent idea while responding to previous statements is practically impossible. It is like taking the thesis of each participant, shredding it to pieces, mixing everything, and sending it for others to read. Color coding seems like a solution, but in fact, it is a symptom of the problem.

The Subject Gets Lost in the Discussion

The longer an email thread is, the more likely the subject will dissolve and branch out to side discussions. Spin-offs are great for popular TV shows, but they are ineffective when they defocus the discussion you want to have.

Sometimes, a side discussion is, in fact, essential and promotes the subject you started with, but more often than not, once such a spin-off is in progress, it is hard to kill it regardless of its relevance. The same dynamic can happen in a meeting. Still, it is usually easier to bring a face-to-face discussion back on track if only because everyone understands it has a greater overhead. Once again, the fact that email seems like a cheap and frictionless way to communicate makes us less rigid regarding its effectiveness.

Will a meeting be more effective if you encounter one of these signs? Couldn’t a meeting suffer from all these problems too?

When managed effectively and properly prepared, a meeting is a better platform for having challenging discussions with multiple elaborated views. If several people are engaged in the conversation, or when two people are in a back-and-forth dialogue, a face-to-face meeting is more manageable. A real dialogue can help everyone process ideas and articulate them better than a fractured email thread. But this doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to an oral discussion.

One of the most effective ways to prepare an effective meeting is to have everyone share their thoughts (and relevant information) in advance. Writing your thoughts before a meeting helps you process your opinion and allows others to form their views on the subject. It is doing so using emails which is the problem because an email calls for a response. But if everyone shares their written ideas and agrees to have the discussion in a face-to-face meeting, you get the best of both worlds. Each view can be read coherently without being fractured, and the dialogue benefits from real-time interaction.

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yellow spice version: 2022.05.0017

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