Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Some tips on getting answers to email

Posted: Dec 13, 2016 22:12;
Last Modified: Apr 05, 2019 14:04

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Email is the bane of academic life. All of us hate it; most of us are very bad at answering it. If you edit a journal, it is even worse, since you need people to answer their email in a timely fashion.

At the Centre for the Study of Scholarly Communication Journal Incubator, getting people to answer email is what we do. Here are some tips we’ve found useful.

Contents

1) Your goal is for the recipient to act on your request immediately

You are writing your email to get the person to do something for you. They are more likely to do it if they can do it immediately. A lot of people use some form of the two minute rule when answering email: if they can do it right away (i.e. in less than two minutes), they do it right away; if they can’t they skip it and hope to come back later. Most of the time, people don’t come back.

Your email should make it easy for them to act immediately, by downloading a file, clicking on a link, or whatever. Once they get started on a task, they are more likely to finish it. As you’ll see below, you should also be very clear about what will be required to carry out or finish the task. If they don’t know in advance how long or short the task is or what is involved, they may never start.

2) Your email should contain everything required for action every single time.

All emails should always contain everything the recipient needs to do what you want, every single time you ask.

One way of encouraging people to act on your email right away is to make sure that they don’t need to leave your email to start acting on it. This means that you should always ensure that every email you send is actionable from the email itself:

But above all, do this every single time you make the request. If you are sending a reminder, include the instructions, links, texts, and attachments again with the reminder. If you don’t do this every time, then your reminder is actually asking your recipient to do at least three tasks:

  1. read the reminder;
  2. find the previous email that contains the links, etc they need to use;
  3. carry out the task the original email asked.

Since they didn’t act on the original email, they are even less likely to act on the reminder—especially if doing so involves more work. More likely, they will put the email aside “for a moment” to deal with their other email… and never get back to it. If they do get back to it, they may not be able to find the previous email: they might have deleted it, or they simply may not be able to find it easily, especially if you have corresponded with them a lot.

3) Put your request at the top of the email, before adding any context or explanation

The first line of the body of your email (or first line after the salutation) should contain the request for action. Explain the context, if necessary, after this line.

Dear Paula,

Before next Tuesday (Dec 20), could you

The attached document is the draft proposal you asked us to write. We’ve gone through it together and we think that it does what you want. We weren’t able to get in everything you wanted, but we think we’ve hit the main points…. [etc.]

It can be difficult to write like this. We like to begin with an introductory context and then move on to the action. But if you get used to doing this way, it becomes second nature. One way of learning to do this is to write your email the “regular” way (i.e. with the introduction first); then once you are finished, find the action and just place it at the top. Do a quick edit afterwards to make sure everything still makes sense. It may feel a little abrupt at first, but your readers won’t really notice and they will value your clarity.

You put the request at the top for a couple of reasons:

  1. People often only skim the beginning of emails and don’t necessarily read things in great detail. If your request comes late in the body, the recipient may not see it before they move on to the next email in their inbox; if there is a lot of preliminary content, they may “put it aside” to return to, rather than acting on it right away; most people never come back to emails they’ve put aside.
  2. Many email clients return search results that show the first couple of lines of an email. If your recipient does need to find your email later, it is much easier to do so if the first line is the action they need to do, rather than some introductory statement.
  3. People can be worried about how much you are asking them to do: if you have a nice clear statement about what they needs to do early on in the email, they are more likely to deal with it right away (and read the rest).

4) Be extremely clear about what the recipient needs to do

The more clear you can be about what you want people to do, the more likely they are to do it.

Be especially clear if the recipient only has to do something simple like “sign and return the attached document.” I once received a request to “review the attached financial records.” Since that sounded like a lot of work to me and I was travelling with only a smart phone, I decided it would have to wait until I got back to the office. When I did, there was a phone message telling me that all I had to do was review the pre-filled-in form for obvious mistakes (e.g. to my name, telephone, etc) and then send them back. Something that I thought might take hours took only a few minutes, but it was two weeks late because the person didn’t indicate how big (or rather small) a job it was going to be.

5) State things you want acted on at the beginning of paragraphs and keep all paragraphs short.

The thing you want acted on should be at the beginning of the paragraph as well as the beginning of the email. And all your paragraphs should be short: no more than a sentence or two (or a couple of lines if you write long sentences).

Academics tend to write really long paragraphs. But when you skim text, you tend to jump from paragraph top to paragraph top. If you have lots of very long paragraphs, everything after the first couple of lines gets buried and is unlikely to be read.

In journalism, editors break paragraphs down visually after a couple of sentences. It’s a good habit to get into.

6) Anticipate any help you can give

If you can help the recipient do what you want them to do, anticipate this and offer it up front. For example, if you want them to write some text for you and you can work from bullet points, say so:

We agreed that you would write the rejection letter for the attached submission. If you prefer, I could draft a letter for you based on bullet points you supply.

If you have text you want them to include, provide it right away either as bullets or as a draft text:

At the meeting, you said that the article could be accepted with the following minor revisions:

If you need any help with putting this together, let me know.

7) If somebody stops responding to reminders, it is often because they are ashamed.

People who don’t answer (and especially those who stop answering) are sometimes ashamed of the fact that they haven’t done what you asked. Often they are “holding off” replying until they have something to report.

The only way to deal with this is to be extremely accommodating. Don’t comment on how often you’ve contacted them or belabour how late they are unnecessarily. Offer to help in any way you can and if a further extension is possible, let them know. If a deadline is really firm, don’t be shy about saying this, but leave as much room as possible for the recipient to save face or hand the work off.

The deadline for this review has past, and we would like to make a decision on the article. If you are still able to complete the review before the weekend, that would help us immensely. If I can do anything to help you make this deadline, please let me know.

If you can’t finish the review by Friday evening, please let us know. We know this is a terrible time of year and we will look for another reviewer if you can’t get to it this time.

Thanks very much either way. Don’t hesitate to let me know or ask for help.

8) Give busy people at least a week’s notice of anything; try to avoid setting deadlines of more than 4 weeks, except for major revisions.

A good rule of thumb is that you should never give people less than a week’s notice of a deadline or proposed meeting date. But also try not to give more than a month if you are setting a deadline (for meetings, this is different—the farther in advance, the better).

If you give less than a week’s notice, people are simply unlikely to have the time, especially for a meeting. If you set a deadline more than four weeks away, you are simply wasting the intervening weeks. People don’t really act until the deadline is approaching.

There is one other thing to keep in mind with regard to deadlines, however. Although people tend not to act until the deadline, they tend not to like quick deadlines: they are much more willing to commit their future selves to work than their current selves (a behavioural tick known as temporal discounting).

This means that if you set a deadline too close, they are likely to say no. We’ve found that two to three weeks is the minimum for this discounting to set in (and people to agree to help you).

If there is a strong norm (like that referees are always given four weeks; authors are given one week to proof), then asking for something quicker than that results in lots of refusals.

9) Remind people of deadlines in advance

Students are often worried that they might bother people by reminding them of upcoming deadlines. In most cases, the recipient of the reminder will be grateful.

In addition, reminding them helps them do it, as most people plan to do things for a deadline (i.e. so that it is done on the deadline) and as the deadline gets closer, other things intrude. Reminders help reestablish priority.

When you remind people, be sure to offer assistance if you are able to.

A quick reminder that the deadline for your review of Article X is next Friday. We really appreciate your help in reviewing this article. You can access it using the following link (you do not need a user name or password if you use this link). There is a form on the site that you can use for your comments.

10) Escalate by including a superior in the cc-line

An effective way of escalating a problem is to include a superior or common friend in the cc-line and then mention them (and the fact that they are cc’d) in the body:

Connie (cc’d here) suggested that you were the perfect person for this review and asked me to send you a reminder.

If you are having real trouble, getting the cc’d person to chime in can also help (e.g. Connie can agree to reply all with “Oh great. I hope you’ll be able to do this!”).

11) Whenever possible invite people to meetings using calendar invites

When you are setting up a meeting, the best way is to use a system like Doodle to propose dates and the to issue the invitation using a calendar invite from your own calendar (it is better to use your calendar rather than Doodle’s, because you can edit the details of yours).

Using an Doodle and an invite is better than writing our the date and time in an email because

  1. You are less likely to make a mistake;
  2. Your recipients don’t have to do anything other than click on a link to accept the invite;
  3. Most calendar apps do the timezone math for you.

12) If people are in different timezones, use an app to figure out the local times.

When I set a meeting, I usually include a link in the agenda to the correct time as shown in timeanddate.com. This site allows you to find the time zones by choosing city names (as a rule, you should go from the Westernmost city at the top to the Easternmost at the bottom). Here’s an example for 8 different cities at 19:00 UTC on March 4, 2019

I find it useful when providing a date and time to give the times both in UTC and one or two major cities (most people in the world know what the difference is between where they live and New York City, London, Paris, or Tokyo).

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