We’ve all been there. You draft a thorough and thoughtful email to a colleague and anxiously await a response, only to get back a one-liner that doesn’t actually answer your carefully worded queries. With the average full-time American worker spending 28% of their workday reading and responding to emails, it’s no wonder things can get lost in the mix. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to improve the quality of your email responses.
1. Direct Your Email to One Person
Think including multiple people in the “to” line will increase the chances of getting a response? Think again. This can actually cause a lot of confusion. The email recipients will likely try to decide amongst themselves who should respond or—worse yet—won’t respond at all because they think someone else will. The latter scenario is a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility, where everyone thinks someone else will act so no one does. Eliminate the guesswork and make it clear who you want to respond by simply addressing your email to one person.
If you need to ask the same questions of multiple people, then send separate emails to each person or consider sending a survey using a tool like SurveyMonkey. While this will require a tad more work on your end, getting prompt and complete responses from everyone will save you time in the long run.
2. Use Numbered Lists
When questions are buried in paragraphs of text, it’s much easier to overlook them (especially when you’re juggling multiple priorities). To help the recipient see exactly what you’re asking, try setting your questions apart by turning them into a numbered list. This format allows the recipient to focus on exactly what you’re asking and provides them space to respond after each question. Questions are less likely to be missed when they are clearly identified and ordered numerically.
So, why not use bullets? Bullets are a great option, too. The benefit of numbers is that they imply hierarchy. Numbers can help force you to order your questions by importance, so the most crucial questions are listed first. This way, if additional questions share the same answers as prior questions, the recipient can save time by referring to a prior numbered response.
3. Get to the Point
While it can be tempting to start your email with the traditional conversational placeholders before launching into what you need, resist that urge. Instead, be direct about the purpose of your email and save the personal stuff for the end. While it might seem impolite to not begin your email with questions about the recipient (How have you been? How was your weekend?), think of it as taking care of the business side of things first so you can focus on your relationship with them later. We’re all used to seeing emails start with these types of perfunctory questions, and everyone knows what to expect next: a request. While this method may be considered courteous, it can actually muddy the waters of your relationship.
Likewise, if you feel your request requires a lengthy explanation, consider putting an asterisk next to your question and including the supporting text below it. Starting your explanation with conversational text (for instance, “Why am I asking this? Because …”) can also help set the intended tone. Better yet, consider whether your message would be better served by a face-to-face or phone conversation, followed up with an email, if needed.