Business hacks: E-mail and W5 analysis

Guy Kawasaki has summarized a bunch of things he thinks everyone should learn about the world of work. One of them leaped out at me:

Whether [you are] young or old, the point is that the optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.

Clearly he is a man after my own heart. At work I often reply with e-mails consisting of the word “Done.”

Whenever you’re writing an e-mail, you should go through what I call W5 analysis. You imagine that you’re the person who is receiving the e-mail, and answer the 5 or more questions that will run through their mind:

  • Who are you?
  • What’s happening?
  • When is it going to happen?
  • Where is it going to happen?
  • Why should I care?

Those are the 5 Ws. (Note that for the purposes of this exercise, “How” is spelled with a silent ‘W’, though ‘How’ questions tend to be more specialized and less important than the others.)

Sometimes there are more than 5 Ws. For instance, if you’re asking someone to do something, you’ll want to go on and answer

  • What do I need to do?
  • When do I need to do it by?
  • How do I do it?

Similarly, if you’re announcing a problem, you might want to add

  • Why did this happen?

If you’re really lucky, you may be able to skip a question and let the reader work it out for themselves. For instance, if they know you already, you can usually skip the “Who are you?” However, if you can’t come up with at least 5 obvious W questions that the reader will want answers to, you’re probably missing something important. Try going through “Who”, “What”, “When”, “Where”, “Why” and see if they prod you to think of a question.

Once you’ve answered the W questions, those answers become the content of the e-mail. So it’s probably no coincidence that Kawasaki picks 5 sentences, and my rule of thumb is to pick the answers to 5 questions.

W5 analysis is also useful for web pages. If you’re setting up a business web site, you should definitely use W5 to decide what goes on the home page. When I go to a web site, I always want to know:

  • Why does this web site exist?
  • What does it contain?
  • Why should I explore further?

and often

  • Who owns the site?
  • Where can I contact them?

It’s surprising how many sites fail to answer those questions.

In fact, once you start thinking this way, you see W5 everywhere. For instance, consider software project release announcements on SourceForge. As a user, off the top of your head, what are the 5 Ws you’d want answers to about any piece of software?

  • What does it do?
  • What does it cost (or what’s the license)?
  • What do I need to run it?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Where is the documentation?

Now go through the release announcements and project pages and see how often people leave those questions unanswered. D’ohh!