While the number of communication tools available to us continues to expand, email remains a primary form of interaction. Every day we write dozens of messages, and receive even more, generating so much information churn that we can overwhelm our ability to focus on our most important work. Precision Q+A helps us write email that is clear and to the point, easing our collaborations over email.
To create clarity and conciseness in email, follow these three steps:
- Write an opening sentence that is focused and polite. Begin with one sentence that uses only the words necessary to introduce the topic of the email. To make sure your brevity is not misconstrued as impatience or rudeness, include polite words and phrases to make the tone clear (e.g., “I could really use your expertise…” or “Your reviewing this will greatly help the team to…”). Combining a clear purpose with a polite tone shows recipients that you respect their time and attention.
- Draft, then refine, the questions you ask. Type the questions you want to ask, but do not regard them as finished! Most of the questions that first pop into our minds are too general. Generate a first draft that gets your thinking on the page, then review it. Make sure each question is distinct, and asks for only one thing. Then make sure each is precise enough that it can be answered starting with one of the five core answers (yes/no, number, date, a number of bullets, or I don’t know +). You might even glance at your 7 Categories of Questions toolkit to ensure you are asking for exactly what you need.
- Format your questions so they can be grasped at-a-glance. We can make it even more likely that we get good answers by putting our questions into a structure that makes them easy to see. Use the formatting features of your email application to number or bullet-point your questions. This helps even those who are in a rush to see exactly what you’re asking of them.
These steps let us artfully communicate in ways that decrease cognitive overload and inbox clutter. When we make sure we are conveying respect and requesting information clearly and concisely, we will create better email—and easier work—for all of us.
Each time you ask someone a set of questions in an email, pause and review it before sending it. Make sure you have:
- a focused, polite opening statement;
- a set of precise questions, asked one at a time; and
- formatted your questions so your colleagues can easily spot them.
At first you may have to proceed a bit more deliberately than usual. But once you have mastered these three steps, you will consistently create email that receives clear and more focused replies.
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