December 2007 Vol. 12 Issue 4
Q&A with Steve Cain: Receive better answers by e-mailing clearer questions

Have you ever asked a question by e-mail and been surprised by the inadequate answer or by the number of follow-up e-mails it took to get the right answer? Have you ever wondered if the problem was how you asked the question? I know several people who have, which leads to this issue’s question.

Question: Sometimes it takes two or three e-mails to clarify a request that I make. How can I reduce the number follow up e-mails?

Answer: You will never achieve e-mail perfection, but there are some things you can do before sending the e-mail to help make your question as clear as possible.

First, invest time up front by taking measures that will reduce the time you and your recipient will have to spend restating your e-mail. Second, realize that you’ll never achieve perfection, but you can strive for clarity.

Remember these tips before sending an e-mail:

  • Clearly define your point or request. It helps to do that before you start typing the e-mail, but at the very least do it before you send it.
  • State your question as clearly as possible. How you state your question is often half the solution. I’ve found that some people answer their own question once they state it clearly or think about it. I usually tell them, “Glad I could help.”
  • Get to the point. Provide background if you must, but don’t bury the person with a load of on-screen reading. And don’t bury your question in the middle of a load of information. Consider putting your question in it’s own line to help it stand out.
  • Be concise but be specific. If you refer to an object, use its proper name and provide a URL, picture, or reference if possible. In your head, you may know exactly what “thing” you are referring to when you ask a question, but the person answering the question may have a host of “things” to pick from because they know more about the subject than you. Being specific helps your reader know at least where your thoughts are on the subject.
  • Look for words with more than one meaning and recognize that e-mail lacks the non-verbal cues that help others understand your message. For example, look at the sentence, “I didn’t say that.”
    • It could be considered confrontational: “I DIDN’T say that.”
    • It could convey humor or embarrassment: “I didn’t say THAT!”
    Look for ways to back up the typed words or choose to use words that are less likely to be misunderstood. Hint: Unclear pronouns decrease clarity.
  • Realize that you must always rewrite. When possible, give yourself a minute or an hour to get away from the e-mail before you send it. I often send the e-mail to myself first, and re-read it later or after lunch. I always find ways to be clearer.
  • Don’t make reading your e-mail difficult for your recipient. Avoid busy e-mail backgrounds, hard-to-read type, too few details, too many details, huge or hard-to-open attachments, and/or broken Web site links.
  • Follow up. If you ask a question by e-mail, don’t assume your recipient saw it. With so much junk mail clutter, your recipient might have missed your message. Depending on the situation, follow up your e-mail with a phone call or second e-mail.

When you write your e-mails, don’t forget what Mark Twain said.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Clarity strikes by bringing precise images to the reader’s mind. Unclear messages just strike them.

Steve Cain, cain@purdue.edu

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