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How to Assign a Task in Email

Based on what I have heard in business writing classes over the past couple of days, I am inspired to share tips on how to assign a task in email–and how not to. Listen in on what people told me (with details disguised):

I got an email from my manager that said, “Please arrange for a 20th anniversary tea. Thanks.” That’s all it said.

My manager sent me an email that said “Let’s have a meeting with Gabriel, Renato, and Sylvia. Please schedule.” The message didn’t say how soon, for how long, for what purpose, or whether the meeting should be by phone, in person, or by WebEx.

My manager forwards me email all the time, with just this note: “Please handle this.” The only problem is that the email threads are a mile long, and I have no idea what they are about.

To assign a task by email, do what the managers above did not do: provide enough information for the person to complete the task efficiently.

To know what to include, imagine you are talking with the other person. What would he or she ask? Consider these questions: Who? What? Where? How? How soon? When? Why? How many?

graphic showing how to assign a task in an email with general questions that should be answered

In the opening scenario above, the employee needed to know, at a minimum, whom the 20th anniversary tea would honor–one person or many people? And how soon should it be? Later the employee would need to confirm the guest list, the budget for the event, and other details.

Of course, different people need different amounts of information. An experienced employee may need very little. But someone new to the task may have many questions, even “What’s a 20th anniversary tea?”

Since it may not be easy to recognize all the questions the employee may need answered–especially when you are in a hurry–it makes sense to include something like this:

Let me know if you have questions. You can reach me by phone tomorrow [include the number], or email me.

But how about that long forwarded message, the one that says only “Please handle this”? If you are doing the forwarding, tell the other person what needs to be handled. Taking just a minute to describe the situation (assuming you are aware of it) could save the employee an hour of piecing together what is required. Here is an example of a brief explanation:

Please handle Marty’s request below. As you will see, he wants an exception to the records management policy, and he hasn’t been able to get an answer from the research group. Run it by Dr. Katz, then get back to Marty. Thanks.

As with so many communications, the best practice for assigning a task involves imagining yourself in your reader’s place. How much does your reader know? What does he or she need in order to accomplish the task? Yes, it takes time to think about these questions, but doing so is likely to lead to much better responses and much happier employees–both of which will save us time in the future.


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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.