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Email: Can’t Get a Response?

The other day I was talking with a man named Scott, who asked me whether I agreed with a tip he had picked up in a presentation on writing email. The presenter had said that one should never write to a group–only to individuals–because that is the only way to get a response.

Whenever I am asked a never or an always question, I have to think about it. I took some time to think about Scott’s question and its implications in my email writing and reading. For a couple of days I noticed how I reacted to the email to “Dear Lynn” and to “Dear All,” and I thought about email I have received in the past.

Now I can say that I believe Scott’s tip was right–at least most of the time.

These are my observations:

  1. If I get an email as a “copy to” recipient, I read it. However, I don’t respond unless I feel I have an important contribution to make.
  2. If I receive an email as part of a group–and that email is asking for volunteers–I don’t volunteer unless the task is something I am completely excited about. I also don’t write back unless my relationship with the writer is important to me, and I want to communicate that I value him or her.
  3. If I receive an individual email asking me to volunteer, I respond positively if the writer explains why the task is important and why I am the person to do it.
  4. If I receive an email that pretends to be individual–that is, it says “Dear Lynn” but is obviously being sent to a large group of individuals (a newsletter, for example)–I often delete it without reading it–unless the topic or sender is important to me.
  5. If I receive an email that is obviously to a large group, I don’t read it unless I can see in the first two lines (one line?) that it offers something of value to me.

Based on my own experience, I suggest these guidelines:

  • Do not expect any response from “copy to” recipients.
  • Do not expect people to volunteer unless you ask them individually.
  • Do not pretend to be writing to an individual when you are not–unless you are sending a newsletter, an announcement, or something similar. In that case, make sure that your opening is compelling.
  • If you are writing to a group, grab them in the first couple of lines so that individuals will want to read on. Use the word you to engage each person.
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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.