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Email: Dealing With Questions

I constantly hear this complaint about email:

People don’t answer my questions!

And this complaint echoes the first:

If I ask people three questions, they only answer two of them!

Part I: Asking the Questions. When I talk with people about these complaints in business writing seminars, sometimes we find that the problem is how the questions were formatted. For example, questions should not be laid out like this:

I need to know when the shipment will arrive and how many cartons of pens it will include. Who is my contact? I hope I also have a backup contact and I am wondering who it is and how to reach them.

It is too hard to find the questions in a paragraph, and it is difficult to see them when they are phrased as statements rather than questions. Beyond that, it is a real challenge to recognize questions when they are implied as “hopes” and “wondering.”

This approach makes it much easier to see the questions and respond:

    1. When will the shipment arrive?
    2. How many cartons of pens will it include?
    3. Who is my contact?
    4. Do I have a backup contact?
    5. If I have a backup contact, who is it and how can I reach the person?

To be sure you get an answer to your questions, include this statement at the beginning of your message:

Please answer my questions listed below.

That way, your reader will know immediately that you need action.

Part II: Answering the Questions. Another part of the complaints I hear is this:

I answer their questions, but they keep asking me the same thing. Don’t they read my responses?

No, they probably don’t read their email. They probably skim it. So we have to write for skimmers.

When responding to questions, answer them in a numbered list that skimmers will easily see, even if you haven’t received them that way. For example, if you had received the questions in the paragraph format above, you could answer them this way:

Here is the information you requested:
1. The shipment will arrive on February 28.
2. It will include 100 cartons of pens.
3. Your primary contact is Kalu Ossa at this number (or email):
4. Your backup contact is Mark Fitzsimmons at this number (or email):

If you receive them in a list, it is efficient to answer them in line, like this:
    1. When will the shipment arrive? February 28
    2. How many cartons of pens will it include? 100
    3. Who is my contact? Kalu Ossa at . . . .

But don’t do this: If you receive a list of questions, do not simply answer them in the lines and click Reply. Put a note at the top of your email, like this one:

See the answers to your questions below.

This week I received what I thought was a blank email sent from a new client. All I saw in her message was empty space and her signature block, and I guessed that she had sent it in error. But before pressing Delete, I noticed that I could scroll down–and there were the answers to my questions–written within my lines. Whew! I was glad I had not deleted her message.

A final thought about questions: Don’t expect answers immediately. Because people are busy, try to anticipate your need for information. Ask questions early, and you are more likely to get answers by the time you need them. If you email me with a question, it may take me a week or more to respond. Please be patient, and feel free to ask again.


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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.