I had a boss who used to tell me, “People don’t read.” And every single time she said it my heart broke a little more—I knew she wasn’t right, flat-out, but I knew she wasn’t wrong, either.
Back in April of 2014, NPR played a little prank on its readers. They posted a story with the headline “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” and captioned an image of a stack of books with “What has become of our brains?” Under these, they wrote the following:
“Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this "story." Best wishes and have an enjoyable day, Your friends at NPR."
In truth, I don’t know what I find more alarming: that the idea of people not reading is so commonplace that we can make jokes about it, that people actually took the bait and responded heatedly to just the headline, or that there were those who got the joke and willfully ignored the directions not to comment.
I get that time is precious. If you’ve had a long day, the last thing you might want is to have to think anymore. I get it—you welcome mindless chatter or images zipping across your TV screen. Your job might consist of being inundated with emails, meetings, calls, and project deadlines. You might be one of those people who has to hold a meeting, lead a presentation, respond to work emails, and respond to your pinging phone all at the same time because in today’s business world, that’s what’s expected of you. You’re swamped, I get it. But does the fact that there’s a lot of information coming at you mean that you shouldn’t be responsible for reading it in its entirety? Does that logic hold?
My answer: yes and no. Hear me out.
If you’re the reader, you should be able to quickly size up how thoroughly you should read it, how you should respond, and when those two things should be done. That means that I recognize that not all emails merit a thorough read. (Forwards often fall into this category very quickly.) But you are responsible for taking the time to discern what level of attention an email requires. And if it needs to be read, read it. That's on you. But I'll give that writers share the responsibity of making the reading process a bit easier.
If you’re the writer of the email, you have a responsibility to understand your audience. If you know that your recipient is busy, impatient, or not a big reader, write to his/her time. Keep your language brief, use bullet points, offer only salient, actionable information. If you know your audience likes details, examples, a bit of editorializing thrown in, do it. The point is: write to your reader.