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Email: A Great Place for a One-Track Mind

In a recent Better Business Writing class, several participants had a challenge that most of us have: They could not get readers to respond to everything they requested in their emails.

They tried to be efficient by covering more than one item in their emails. For example, one individual–let’s call her Yvette–was writing to welcome new employees and tell them about the schedule for their first two days at work. She told them the details of Day 1 and Day 2 clearly and concisely. Then, at the end of her email, she asked them to send her a short bio to include on the company intranet.

You can guess what kind of response Yvette got to her email. New employees showed up at the right time and place for their new job. Almost none of them sent her a bio.

Let’s call another class participant Helena. In Helena’s email, she wrote to ask a group of readers to review the survey questions she had written. She gave them a bit of background on the survey and supplied the electronic link to the questions. Then Helena asked people to let her know if they could attend an upcoming meeting she wanted to schedule.

Helena caught her mistake before finishing the email. Can you guess what would have happened if she had sent it as she had originally planned? Her readers would have reviewed the questions. But it is likely that few of them would have responded about the proposed meeting date.

Email readers have one-track minds. They look for the one thing they need to do to handle your email.

Show up on the first day of work? Yes, readers can do that. Send a bio? Yes, no problem.

Show up AND send a bio? No, most readers will not do both things you ask.

Yes, they will review your survey questions. Yes, they will respond about an upcoming meeting date. But they will NOT do both in response to one email.

Even though Yvette, Helena, and others in the writing class were trying to be efficient, their efforts led to inefficient communication. Happily, they realized they needed to write with one-track minds, the same way their audience reads.

Do you have tips for more efficient emails? Please share them.


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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.

19 comments on “Email: A Great Place for a One-Track Mind”

  • Do you recommend a time delay between the two emails, each with the separate request? (I’m assuming separate emails for separate requests are your solution for Yvette and Helena).


  • I have learned to send one-subject emails for this same reason.

    A related problem is obsolete subject lines: as a email thread moves from one respondent to another, often its true subject changes but the subject line doesn’t. For example, a thread’s subject line may remain “Meeting on June 5” long after the exchange has shown that a meeting on June 5 is impossible. I often correct the subject line, even if this breaks the thread.

  • It was my problem 🙂 To cover details of different events in one e-mail. Thanks to my boss who gently explained to me this mistake.

  • I love this tip. I am very bad about putting several things in one e-mail. I will have to write myself a note and see if I can break up the e-mails into discrete tasks. I second ADeambrosi’s question of timing between e-mails. I’m thinking a day, if you can manage it, sending them in logical order (i.e. request for bio first then when and where to show up.) When does e-mail fatigue set in?

    The way I handle this, at times, is to put the most important or first thing first and bold, then go on with the rest of the steps/requests. I then follow up with reminder e-mails as dates approach. Internally, I will also put dates with tasks on calendars through task or meeting requests. I try to use as many channels as possible to help my business partners do what I need them to do easily. In fact, I’ve started to do this with family as well – send them meeting invites so they can put it on their electronic calendar without having to enter anything.

    Great topic.

  • One email per action works, but the sheer number of emails can be as big a barrier to cooperation as a well-worded compound request.

    Make the list of things to be done overt. When there are three action items, for instance, I often will put “Three action items:” in the subject line. My first paragraph repeats this message and specifies what actions I expect or am requesting. Subsequent paragraphs, if any, provide background or needed detail. If you need to provide a LOT of detail, internal headers can help to re-enforce the “threeness” of what needs to be done. Finally, close with a numbered list of things for the recipient to act upon. Yep, this is heavy-handed, but it rarely fails. Adjust your tone with humor or expressions of gratitude as required. 😉

  • I sometimes use a bulleted list at the top of an email that requires several subjects. For example:
    In this email:
    * Change to meeting time
    * Bios needed
    * Survey questions (deadline June 14)

    I’ve also used the heading “In this digest” followed by a bulleted list when sending out multiple announcements.

    This way, people know there are multiple topics, and have just a hint of what they are.

  • Hi, George. Excellent example! We would be much more efficient if everyone updated subject lines like your June 5 example.


  • Hi, J. Venis. I also recommend the approach you use–that is, to emphasize the number of tasks in the subject, body of the email, and conclusion, with formatting to highlight essential tasks. I like it!

    Still, I often find that one topic per email helps people handle the task quickly and easily. In Yvette’s situation, for example, writing a bio and showing up in the correct place on the first day of work are two very different activities.

    In Helena’s situation, the two-pronged approach might work well. It’s just that reviewing questions and scheduling a meeting are two discrete actions that require different steps to be completed.

    Thanks for sharing your good advice.


  • I agree with J. Venis and Helen Lawson: Make sure that you enumerate whats important in the first sentence/paragraph. Also make sure what those points are throughout the text.

    Then almost all readers will make sure that they figure out the two to three points in your message.

    But also make sure to only combine closely related topics in your messages and do not cover more than approximately 4 to maximum 5 items.

  • Hello, ADeambrosi. Good question. It depends on the circumstances, but a day might be a good time delay. For Yvette, requesting the bio first would probably work well, since it requires that the reader do something in addition to showing up at work.

    If a delay does not make sense, it helps to write something like this in the first message: “I will follow up with another email about your first- and second-day schedule.”


  • Hi, Jennifer. You are very wise to try several channels–including putting tasks on calendars.

    I appreciate your framing the situation as “helping our business partners do what we want them to do.” That attitude contributes to success.


  • Hi, Helen and Andreas. Thanks for your suggestions. My comment to J. Venis applies to your good ideas too.

    The problem with having several things for readers to do is that your readers may say, “I’ll get back to this message when I have time to complete the tasks.” But when the message only requires them to do one thing, they can handle it immediately if they choose to.

    Of course, if what you are requesting will benefit your readers, and you make them aware of that benefit, they are more likely to do what you request or require.


  • One thing I learned over the years when it comes to asking more than one questions in an email is to highlight them, so that they stand out.
    If I have to write a mail similar to Yvette:
    I would have three headings that standout (Bold, italic and different color)
    1: Welcome aboard
    On behalf of the company, I welcome all the new employees
    2: Your itinerary for Day 1 and 2
    Provide the details for both the days
    3: Short Biography
    Request short bio from each individual
    I have used the above format successfully.
    Would love to know others opinion!

  • Hello, Suresh. I am glad you are getting positive responses.

    You might want to make small adjustments in your approach to continue to get good results. For example, if you move the request for the bio higher in the message, you are more likey to get a positive response. Requests for action that appear near the end of a message are often ignored.

    Italic fonts typically do not stand out, so I don’t recommend them. And sometimes colors that are used to make content prominent actually make it fade into the background.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Few years ago I wrote in an e-mail to a client: “Please inform if you will send material xxx to our premises or to final location” and I received the following answer: “Yes”. One e-mail to shorten time and 5 more e-mails to be sure both them and I understood what “yes” was answering!
    Now I write: “Please inform if you will send material xxx to our premises”, so the answer is clear.
    Your blog is a good help for improving my English, thank you Lynn.

  • Hello, Lynn. I work as a tech support rep for a contact center in Asia (providing support to customers in the US) and I receive emails from Quality Assurance team regarding process updates — like changes on our scope of support — almost on a daily basis. I often get emails which do not clearly state “who performs which” and “what tasks are assigned to whom”. Often, I would need to reply to seek clarifications and they would reply using an edited version of the original emails with the same subject, only adding “erratum” at the beginning. While this addresses my concern, it creates another confusion for my colleagues since these “erratum emails” do not provide introductory descriptions of what were changed and what were added.

    I’m thinking of including a link to your blog the next time I email them so they can check on your business email tips. 😉

  • Hi, Shane. Thanks for telling your story. I suggest you talk to your main contact in Quality Assurance to explain the confusion the messages create. It’s the kind of problem a conversation can often solve.

    Good luck!


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