Brevity & Working on the Go: The Key to Executive Communication
One of the most important things I learned from my five years in VC was the importance of being able to work on the go. That’s to say, to use the phone in your pocket and move the business, the project, or the conversation forward from wherever you are.
In my early years, I used to be pretty precious about responding to emails. I’d concoct an ideal dream-state scenario where I’d be at my computer, cup of coffee at my side, and blithely click into each inbox one message at a time while I composed thoughtful responses to each and every one.
So when I was on my phone, I’d wait until I was back at my computer to respond. I’d mentally clock and save the intro requests until I could look up someone’s LinkedIn profile and properly fit it into a perfectly formed introduction. I’d wait to open a Google Doc until I was sitting at my computer and had the time to really comment and go through it with a fine-toothed comb. I wouldn’t engage on long email threads until I could commit to ingesting every threadline. I’d save it all until I was able to get myself back to a laptop and plow through.
The reality is — that magical email dreamland time never came. Instead, my emails would stack up in my inbox for weeks (if not months) at a time. So rather than be the helpful one who always got back to you in an eloquent and thoughtful way, I was the exact opposite. Unhelpful. Unresponsive.
At USV I learned that executive work happens on the go. It happens quickly, it happens briefly, and it happens all the time. If you’re in a boardroom meeting and the CEO mentions that they are looking for a new CFO, you bring out your phone and send them an email right then and there. If you get an email at the start of your day while you know you’ll be fully stacked with meetings, you don’t send the two-paragraph answer: You pick the most important component and you respond in a sentence or two. You keep the conversation going. You keep the balls in the air.
I used to think of introduction requests in particular as formal solicitations, meant to be treated in the very-proper “Dear Sir or Madam” language we learned back in school. I’d concoct the email equivalent of a five-paragraph essay for each and every one. While this certainly worked, it wasn’t entirely necessary most of the time. The reality is — a lot of email introductions and requests come as morse code snippets rather than unfurled scrolls of parchment. Coffees happen over Twitter DMs. Job offers happen over LinkedIn messenger. If you’ve already put in the good work upfront to get to know a person, you can make the intro request in just 1–2 sentences without all of the fluff and pretense.
When it comes to reading Google Docs or even long email threads, it’s actually not that often that you’re asked to line-item review all of the content. So unless you’re being asked to redline text and change a bunch of things, chances are, you can review a strategy document from the coffee shop or scan through a list of prospective clients and contribute a few additional thoughts before your next meeting. Unless you have real edits to share (which, by the way, you can always do later on, when you are at your computer), odds are good that you already know the one or two items you’d want to tell that document’s author, or the one or two observations you want to call out in a long email thread.
Yes, this sometimes means you make typos. Yes, this sometimes means your recipients see that annoying, “Sent from my iPhone” response in your notes. Sometimes this means writing a blog post on your commuter train if that’s the only time that day you have to get it done. But in business, momentum is everything. Brevity is key. And done is better than perfect.