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You send an e-mail with three questions to a colleague. They reply but only answer the first question. The questions are strongly related so you don't want to send three separate e-mails. However you need all three answers and it's clear they are only skimming what you've written and answering the first question they see.

How can you approach this without looking like a nag or a psycho who sends a bazillion e-mails about everything? Should I just routinely number my questions? I've considered that but thought it might look a little pointed/officious.

edit: "routinely" may have been slightly over egging the pudding, but it has happened enough to bother me, and with different people over the years, not just one problem person.

To those asking how many questions I think I asked above, the answer is two. There are two question marks therefore there are two questions that I want answers to. I think that's the common understanding of how question marks work i.e. "please respond to this statement" and that's how I have always used them. However the consensus seems to be that bulleting / numbering them is helpful for recipients who are busy, disorganized or both, as is limiting the number of questions per communication to a minimum, ideally one.

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  • 4
    Could you edit the question to include the text of an example email with personal or confidential details redacted? I wonder if you are "burying the lede".
    – Theodore
    Jan 7 at 21:22
  • How many words does such email contain?
    – lalala
    Jan 8 at 18:08
  • 6
    @RogerHeathcote how many questions do you think that your post here has? I see 2 sentences that ends with question marks, but it seems the second one is a possible answer to the first one and not a question. But I could also see a possible question in the first paragraph, that question would be how you get your colleague to read the email and not only skim it. So there could be 1, 2 or 3 questions. I'm asking this to make sure you reflect on how you write questions, it might not be as easy as you think to see what you're asking.
    – Polygorial
    Jan 8 at 21:25
  • 1
    If you have 3 questions then send 3 mails. Put something useful in the header, so they can be answered and catalogued separately.
    – RedSonja
    Jan 10 at 10:07
  • I agree with @RedSonja. I dealt with a corporate office where the devs were "too busy" to actually read what was asked, and I learned to keep questions down to one, ideally 2 or 3 sentences, because anything beyond that was ignored. Hard to do but sometimes the only way.
    – DaveG
    Jan 11 at 4:34

11 Answers 11

18

As organizations grow, they run into scaling issues, and e-mail communication is one such issue: it grows quadratically with organization size, so that senior people or any manager will routinely handle over a hundred e-mails a day (and that's a low bar). As you may imagine, this means that they will skim e-mails: it's a fact of life, you cannot change it.

So, knowing that your e-mails will be skimmed over, it's up to you to ensure that important issues (and especially questions) stand out and that you clearly identify who should answer (otherwise, everyone waits for someone else to).

The basics are:

  1. Put the people who will need to reply to this e-mail in To, and others -- for which the e-mail is informational -- in Cc or Bcc.
  2. Greet those people, it's always good form, and makes it clear who the e-mail is addressed to, and who is only spectator (yes, it's redundant).
  3. Prefix each question with who should answer it, bolded. Others may jump in, but you've pinned the responsibility on one person who cannot reasonably expect them to and therefore will have to either answer or delegate.

Minimal example:

To: alice@acme.com, bob@acme.com
Cc: boss@acme.com, colleague@acme.com

Hello Alice, Bob,

I'd need your help regarding project X:

  1. @Bob: Where is the frobnicator?
  2. @Alice: How can I get a license to use the frobnicator myself?
  3. @Bob: Will you be able to arrange a demo of the frobnicator for myself, or would you recommend someone else to demo it?

Cordially,
Roger.

If your e-mail is running long, the questions may still get buried in the wall of text and be forgotten. Thus the additional tips:

  1. Avoid the use of bold for anything else, with perhaps the exception of section titles for long e-mails.

  2. Group all questions at the beginning or end, do not pepper them all over. This ensures that if someone sees one question, they see all.

    • Exception: if you have multiple sections, you may have them at the beginning or end of each section, rather than the whole e-mail, so they're closer to their context.
  3. If questions are not immediately visible, clearly announce in the first sentence that you have multiple questions. People typically do read the first sentence, and now they know.

With that structure, I typically get a rather satisfactory response rate. It does happen that someone fails to answer a question -- we're humans, we miss stuff -- and I'll just poke them over chat/phone in that case.


I shall note that with a recent version of Outlook typing @ will trigger auto-completion with a list of contacts, will display the @Contact in bold, and the relevant contact will be moved to the To field: it's that common place a practice that it's now built-in.

140

I'll usually enumerate my questions if I have more than one, like

  1. Can you tell me more about XX?
  2. I saw YY and infer ZZ. Is that correct?
  3. Am I also right that Peter should take care of task A?

This works most of the time. If someone answers my e-mail incompletely, I thank them for their answers so far and kindly ask them 'Could you please provide more details for questions 2 and 3? Thanks!'

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32

If the questions are lengthy, it's worth summarising them at the top and giving more detail below. As in citronas's answer I'd enumerate them. I'd also use a subject line that makes it clear there are multiple questions (I often do this with my boss). Example.

To: Skim.reader@example.com
Subject: 3 questions about widgets

Hi Skim,
Any chance you could clarify 3 things for me (more details below):
1: Who's building the widgets this week?
2: User manual review is becoming urgent - schedule?
3: Any ideas on supply-chain issues?

Specifically:
1: Alice is training Bob so neither of them is at full capacity, Charlie is off sick...
...
...
2: Are you planning to get the photos to me for the manual in time for... because
...
3: We're short of a few different parts - have the suppliers got back to you?
Cables are the most critical but
...

You may choose to use formatting within the email to draw attention to the key points. Bold jumps out better than italics (which is why it's not used for minor/routine emphasis) so would be good here)

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10

The given answers of listing your questions explicitly are good, and if this applies to you should definitely be your first solution. Clear communication benefits everyone.
This answer is written as a plan B, because I've worked with people who wouldn't give a full reply even when the answers were listed explicitly, and repeatedly kept on doing so.


In such a case, what I tend to do is to follow up again without repeating yourself. In other words, I don't follow up with this:

Thanks for your response. Can you also tell me if [question2]?

But instead I refer back to the already asked question:

Thanks for your response. Have you had a chance to look at the other questions?

This forces them to cycle back to the earlier email and re-read it properly. While this is more annoying for them to have to cycle back; this is done intentionally on my part. They failed to read the email properly, so they should re-read it. The goal here is to fix the problem long term so this back-and-forth doesn't keep happening time and time again.

People who skim very direct communication tend to do so either because a lack of care or time to dedicate (which isn't necessarily malevolent or lazy). But having to cycle back to an already read email is even slower than reading it properly once.

With repeated occurrences, it should (subconsciously) incentivize them to read the email fully the first time, because it's faster than having to re-read it.

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7

I've found that when running into the personality styles of the people you're describing, it's easier to schedule a short meeting to get your questions answered than getting frustrated over what you're describing. You'll waste a lot of time and stress yourself out trying to pin down responses from certain people via email. Some, even professional staff, will simply avoid answering anything complex. (I'm rolling my eyes right now, even at the thought).

This might seem like a major annoyance but the penalty for not getting the information you need in a timely manner may outweigh the annoyance.

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5

You're more than likely right that they just skim your email to get to the point and answer the first question they see, but you're over thinking the solution. There is nothing wrong with numbering your questions to make it obvious that multiple separate answers are given.

Another thing you might consider is that your emails are perhaps needlessly wordy. Try and keep them polite but concise and separate using paragraphs where possible - no one needs a block of text that's overly friendly when they are at work. The art of adding just the right amount of "fluff" is an important one and changes from person to person. I tend to write to people in the same way they respond.

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    There's fluff and there are key details. the balance is often tricky, and can be almost impossible
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 10:29
3

In my experience, this is a behavioral pattern. In other words, it will be the same colleague who consistently doesn't answer your questions, ignores requests for meetings, etc. This is a common problem, which makes it a systematic problem that calls for a systematic solution.

One very effective solution is Scrum. Originally intended for software development, Scrum is now being applied in many other endeavors.

In the Scrum paradigm, unanswered questions would be treated as blockers. These blockers would be mentioned every day in your standup meeting so they don't fall off the Scrum Master's radar. The Scrum Master has to be someone with the managerial authority to metaphorically grab your unresponsive colleague by the shirt collar and say, "Hey! Reply to your email!"

I once sent a manager three questions. She answered one and a half of them. I emailed her five times. When I finally got her on the phone, we spoke at length about what information I still needed. When that didn't get a result, I escalated to my own manager. He emailed her and copied me. When I left the company 11 months later, the product I needed the information to ship was still sitting in the warehouse. Scrum would have prevented this. But Scrum was too "cutting edge" for that company. It's only been around since 1986...

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I've been fortunate during my working career to be educated by many great communicators (and email writers). The first question you should be asking yourself is if email is the appropriate mechanism for multiple questions requiring multiple answers.

If the lack of responses are an issue with multiple colleagues then the problem may, indeed, be the way you are constructing your emails.

When people skim, they tend to read the opening line and maybe the last line. So if you need the answer to 3 questions, your opening line could be something like:

I really need details for the 3 issues listed below and would appreciate a response to each one:

Then, as a closing line, summarize with something like:

If any of the 3 issues are unclear, please let me know and I'll be happy to clarify

If this still doesn't work, then it may be that emails just won't cut it with this colleague and a meeting or phone call is the way to go. If that is what takes place then be sure to document the answers given during the meeting and email them to the colleague as a confirmation.

0

You have broadly three choices…

Most obviously and perhaps least likely, complain to someone more senior…

Short of that, ask the same question but with the order of details changed… "When I Asked A, B and C you said that "… B and C & etc…". Can you now tell me/us about A?

0

Pick up the phone, or walk over to their desk.

They've skimmed your email, and they've responded. That means they've had to think about your questions.

You haven't got what you need (and you don't know why they didn't answer all the points), but now is the perfect time to discuss the matter, because you both have it in your mind.

It's the only way to deal with people who don't answer you because they don't know the answer, but won't say so.

Most of the time verbal communication is fine. If you need a record of the answers you got verbally in order to be able to hold them to account later, email them back a record of your conversation.

If they're the type of person who doesn't like to be disturbed - that's on them because they failed to answer your email properly. They will remember to answer your email properly next time. But for normally a conversation will be pleasant and you may end up discussing something else that would otherwise have been missed.

If they can't be reached by phone, then send the email back saying: "Thank you for your email answering part A, I tried to call you, can you also answer part B." If that doesn't work you can copy in their manager.

0

Stop sending e-mails to this person

Long gone are the days of properly answering every e-mail, because those were the days during which people received a couple of e-mails, not hundreds of them.

Emails have many drawbacks, and your colleagues know it. The solution to a too long e-mail isn't an even longer one, with an introduction, a summary, and follow-up e-mails.

For your specific problem, we've had good experience with Slack. Ask one question per message, so that you can begin a thread for each specific question if needed.

If a question remains unanswered, you can search for it, you can link it, you can ping a person and you can ask more specific question in the corresponding thread.

Colleagues will thank you because there will be much less fluff, it will be faster to answer and the information will be faster to find. Also, communication will still be asynchronous, and you don't bother them with a meeting or a phone call.

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