Some tips on getting answers to email

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.

The overall goal is to encourage your recipient to act on the email immediately, before they move on to something else.

A lot of people (consciously or unconsciously) use some form of 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 try to remember to return to it later.

It’s this second thing we want to prevent. Our goal is to get them to act right away, before they move on.

They may not be able to do everything you need in two minutes (e.g. review an article, read a document, make a decision), but they can get started on it by downloading or printing an attachment or opening a link in a new browser tab.

Getting them to do this before they move on increases the likelihood that they will complete what you are asking them to do.

Always ensure the email is actionable from the email itself, 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: if you want somebody to read something, include the text they are to read, even if this is a reminder email; if you want them to visit a link, include the link, again, every single time.

If you don’t do this, then you are actually asking your recipient to do at least two things: the thing you want them to do and conduct a search of their email to find the email in which you originally included the link or attachment you want them to act on.

If they haven’t responded to your original, single, request, you shouldn’t think that asking them to do an extra thing is going to produce a different result.

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.

Put your request for action at the top of your 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,

Could you read over the attached word document and make any changes you would like to see and then return it to us by reply-all to this email? If you leave track changes on, we can follow what you want changed more easily.

If it is possible, we’d like to finish this by next Tuesday, December 20th.

This 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….

This can seem counter-intuitive at first, since context has an “introductory” feel to it, but after you get used to it, it becomes second nature.

You do this 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.
  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.

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 financial records.” I put it off for two weeks until I had the time to do what I thought I was being asked (i.e. “review financial records”), only to discover they really meant “take a quick look at the review we’ve completed for you and sign it if you don’t see any problems.”

Something I thought was going to take a morning took five minutes.

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. You should get in the habit of doing the same thing.

Anticipate any help you can give

If you can help the recipient do what you are 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:

  • Change in title
  • A better caption for figure 3
  • Cleaned up bibliography.

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

When people stop answering emails requesting them to do something, it is often because they are ashamed or hope to finish before they respond again.

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 how far behind they are. Offer to help in any way you can and if you are still able to, indicate that an extension is possible. 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.

We are getting very close now to the deadline for this review. If you can get it done 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 review the article before Friday, 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.

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 weeks 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.

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.



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