Get a response to your emails
Gina Cuciniello has some tips on making sure your message gets through
Are you frustrated that you don't receive replies to your emails at work? Do you find that your customers and colleagues are not as responsive as you'd like them to be? The problem may lie with the way you write.
In this age of increased connectivity, why is it that, often, our messages go unanswered? Well, people just don't respond to email as quickly as they used to. And the reason is simple - pure email overload. With so much coming in, it's easy to ignore everything but the most urgent messages.
So, what can we do to make sure our messages get our readers' attention and provoke an answer? A few changes to the way your write can increase your chances of receiving an answer.
Even getting our messages opened and read in the first place can be a bit of a challenge. Think about how you yourself decide which messages to open and which to leave to later. If you' re like me, first you will check who it's from, who it's addressed to and what it's about in the subject line. If we don't get these basics right, our messages may automatically be relegated to the junk folder.
First, the 'from' line. Now, there's not a lot you can do about who it's from. Hopefully you will have built up enough rapport with the reader by writing good quality messages in the past that they won't feel that reading this message will be a waste of their time. By spending extra time on making sure your email quality is consistently good, you will build up a reputation for clear writing and your readers will see that they can deal with your messages quickly and easily.
Many employees wonder why the response rate to messages they send to groups is low. Emails aimed at large readerships are less likely to get a response than those sent to just one individual in the 'to' line. Who can resist thinking that someone else will answer it!
Make sure your message is addressed only to the people who need to take action. If it's just for information, those addressees need to go in the cc box. However, be careful with who you include in this line as you could be on dangerous ground if you think that sending a copy to a superior or influential person will push your recipient to answer. Some recipients may see this as an underhand tactic. You may get your answer, but you may also get a large dollop of resentment - not great for future relationships.
Use your subject line wisely. From a glance at the list of subject lines in the inbox, the reader will decide which message to act on first. Careful wording can push your reader to open the message and then understand that a response is needed. Try to include action words in the subject line, such as 'request', 'need', 'reply', or 'consolidate', to signal upfront that you want an answer.
Indeed, a quick glance at subject lines in incoming messages can be helpful in giving the reader an idea of their work requirements for the day. Be as specific as possible, such as 'your comments needed - changes to release eight', to help the reader. And remember to keep subject lines down to no more than seven words for maximum impact.
Capturing the reader's interest
If you keep the message short, you make it easy for the other person to digest what you have said and respond immediately. On the very first glance at a message, readers assess what the cognitive cost will be to them - how much effort is responding to this going to take? Can they deal with your message quickly? If they see the cognitive cost to them is low, it will move up their priority list.
Messages that contain dense paragraphs, unfamiliar words and long complex sentences will lose a reader's interest quickly. To get a speedy response, the content of your email should be understood immediately, without the reader having to re-read it to try to make sense of it. So aim for a crisp, lively style by using shorter sentences and words you know your reader will understand. Keep paragraphs extra short, at around three lines, to allow for pauses in the attention of a busy reader.
This is especially important today, given that 43 per cent of emails are now opened on mobile devices, according to email marketer Litmus, whose research confirms that, in June 20121, mobile email opens surpassed desktop and webmail opens for the first time.
The look or design of the message will also have an impact on the reader. We often make decisions on whether to read a message, and then respond, based on how attractive the message is to read. Presenting the information in an engaging way can increase the chances of a response. A lively style with direct questions will further engage the reader. For example: "I've got some time next Tuesday or would later in the week work for you? Please let me know what works best for you either way."
Have you made your request clear?
With so much information circulating around today, it's not surprising that many readers overlook requests to reply. Help your reader by making your question stand out in a separate line and not hiding it in the middle of a paragraph.
Writing a good email can be compared to writing a good blog post or magazine article. Put the most important content, the fact that you want a response, either in the very first paragraph or in the subject line. Don't assume that the recipient will read beyond that. Then use the rest of the email to provide background information and supporting information.
If, like many of us, you get a lot of email every day, you might spend just a few seconds scanning the message to determine how it applies to you. Now imagine others are reading your messages in exactly the same way. If they can't quickly understand that you want a response, they'll probably leave it for 'later' - if that ever comes.
The wording in your request for action should be completely unambiguous. This especially applies to writing to readers whose first language isn't English, who are more likely to misunderstand. These readers are often bewildered by the indirectness of our language and surprised to find that the message they thought was just for information did in fact require a response.
On my training courses, non-native English speakers have often said that they didn't know if they were expected to respond or not due to complex sentence structures used by some native speakers. Instead of 'I was wondering if you'd had time to review the draft' or 'it would be very helpful to receive your comments on the draft', write 'please send me your comments on the draft report'. If you don't put your question simply, you may be waiting a long time for an answer.
Do you include long lists of questions in your messages? Readers may be overwhelmed by the sheer length and complexity of the message and so delay answering. Make your message easier to deal with by grouping your questions into logical sections with sub-headings.
Are there one or two questions whose topic doesn't seem to fit into your sections? Consider saving them for a separate message.
You can make it easy for your readers to respond to your numerous questions by numbering them. Readers can then use the same numbering system to respond, or even just add their answer in a few words next to the questions in a different colour perhaps.
If you have many questions on many subjects, your reader can feel overloaded. Present the information in an easily digestible way, such as by narrowing the range of options down to two or three and then asking them to pick one. For example, 'where shall we hold the meeting? (1) the Marriott, (2) the Sheraton, or (3) the Hilton?' After you ask the question, you can provide the backup information on each hotel.
Providing a deadline
A deadline can give the reader an extra push as he is then less likely to procrastinate. It can also help him with planning out his workload in advance. But the deadline should be a real one, not invented. If the reader discovers that you have been less than honest, your credibility will be damaged and he will never attempt to meet your deadline again. Instead, provide the specific date and time.
Be careful, of course, when writing to overseas readers that you use GMT or CET or you will not be working on the same timelines.
Show your appreciation
Of course it's only natural for readers to ask why they should respond quickly and what they will gain by co-operating with you. Not that they are being difficult, more that they have other priorities. So what can you do when there is no direct benefit to them in responding?
You could start by explaining how important the information you need is and how their answer will help you. They will feel more likely to help you if they understand their answer will be so valued. And don't forget to tell them how much you appreciate their help - they should see the value of helping you to store up the favour for the future and ask you.
You could consider telling them that, unless you hear from them, you will make an assumption on their answer. However, this should be used with caution. After all, can you ever be 100 per cent certain that they have read your message and paid it the necessary attention?
Reinforce positive behaviours. By thanking your reader for any action he has taken, you will make him feel valued and so more likely to repeat the behaviour, responding to your message, again.
To get an answer to your message, you may have to experiment and be creative. Different readers may be galvanised into action by different things.
A timely reminder for an answer may be appreciated by readers as your previous request may have unintentionally been forgotten about. But no matter how much you want a response, refrain from constantly emailing and calling for it. This can be immensely irritating. Wouldn't you prefer a well-thought-out response? So allow readers time to absorb your message and provide a quality response, or else you' ll just be creating more email traffic. After all, being demanding isn't going to win you any friends.
With a few changes in tactics and some additional planning, you should see a better success rate. If you want more replies to your messages, think about your own email behaviour. Do you respond in a timely manner? We can't expect from others what we don' t practise ourselves.
But if you feel you are still doing all you can but find that there are still certain people who you rely on that rarely respond to your messages, take heart. It may be that they just don't like emailing so perhaps you should just call them.
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