How to Write an Email That'll Get a Useful Response

Some days, there’s nothing more annoying than an email miscommunication. You spend time pulling together a thoughtful message, and one of the following things happens:

At this point, you’re ready to swear off email altogether—and the only thing that’s stopping you is knowing that’s totally unrealistic.

So, here’s a better use of your time: Review what you wrote and see if you might be causing this chain of events.

I’m not saying this to make you feel bad (and it really could be that you’re getting a worthless reply through no fault of your own).

However, it’s worth examining what you’re sending out; because, if you can identify a way to strengthen your messages—you’ll suddenly have a much higher rate of getting back what you need. And it’s as simple as pretending you’re the recipient and asking the following two questions:

1. Why Am I Receiving This?

Fact: The average person spends 1/3 of their workday checking email. And so, not every single message is going to garner their full attention. (Think about it: Do you tend to just skim those group emails that are addressed to everyone?)

It’s totally fine to send a general update or an FYI with no reply needed. However, because those kinds of messages exist, when you’re sending and email to a specific person for a specific reason, you want to make that clear—and fast.

Any easy way to do this is ask a clear question, and bump it up the top. Consider the following two examples:

Option 1

Dear [Name],

Attached please find notes on the latest stage of [project]. I’ve made the following three changes:

– [Change 1 description]
– [Change 2 description]
– [Change 3 description]

I also had the following thoughts: [explanation].

What do you think of [the point two paragraphs higher]?

Best,
[Your Name]

Option 2

Dear [Name],

I’d love your thoughts on the second change I made to project, outlined below. For context: I’ve made the following three changes (attached):

– [Change 1 description]
– [Change 2 description]
– [Change 3 description]

I also had the following thoughts: [explanation].

What do you think of [the point two paragraphs higher]?

Best,
[Your Name]

As you can tell, the second version differs by just the opening line, but it makes it instantly clear that this is more than a general, no-follow-up-needed update. By bookending the note with your goal (instead of just concluding with it), you make it easy for your co-worker to see that you want to hear from them before you move forward.

2. What Should I Do Next?

Bumping up the “I’d like your thoughts on the second change I made to [project]…” accomplishes a second objective as well. It also tells the reader exactly what your looking for: feedback on a specific point.

I can’t stress this enough, because highlighting the other person’s next step is key to getting the response you’re looking for (and it saves you from that awkward moment when, in lieu of what you need, you get tons of ideas on something you’d already decided on).

There should be a line like these in every email you send:

  • I’d love you thoughts on [this idea]/ What do you think of [this approach]?
  • I need [something the other person has] in order to move forward with [something else].
  • I’m just sending this on for your reference: No action needed.
  • I wanted to share [the below], just so you’d have an update.
  • Could you send back your [thoughts/ideas/requests] on [exact matter] by [date]?

Well-written emails can help you be more productive, by saving you from meetings and phone calls you were able to accomplish in a few short paragraphs. To make them even more effective, just remember to keep in mind what the other person will think when they receive them and answer their key questions up front.

Inspired to find even more ways to improve your emails? Here are three articles to check out now:

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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