Writing effective e-mails V: Providing clear context

If you are writing to someone you do not correspond with regularly, you need to make sure to provide them with context right at the start. They may not know (or remember) who you are. Even if they recall your name, they may not be aware of the team, department, or company for which you are working. If you’ve corresponded a long while before, but you’re one of hundreds or thousands of people in their network, then they will likely not remember anything about your previous correspondence.

In two or three sentences, you can fix that. Remind them exactly who you are and what you do for them (or vice versa). Likewise, make sure to provide the who, what, when, where, why, and how of what you are asking in the message. If you don’t make it clear who has to do what, no-one will do it (or take the blame), especially when you’re mailing a group. If you don’t say why, no-one will care about your request (without the why, you’re just giving orders!). You should also include a section addressing why they should care about the issue you are addressing. If your reader is trying to juggle 15 different projects, you need to give them a reason to pay attention to you right now when they could be working on something that (for them at least) is more important.

It’s also really important to include any previous communication that may be relevant. If there was previous e-mail correspondence that was relevant to the subject you are discussing now, quote the e-mail trail at the bottom of the message. Likewise, if you had a phone call, remind them of the date and relevant details of the call to jog their memory. Even better, you hopefully e-mailed them these details at the time of the call (see previous post on E-mail as evidence) so you can just forward that.

What many do is to say “Please do ABC as I requested in my earlier e-mail.” However, if you’re not forwarding that e-mail with the current one, then you’re expecting them to dig it out… if they still have it. Ask yourself, is that going to make them more or less likely to do what you ask? Likewise, if you are referring to documents to be read or otherwise worked on, it helps include them (or the links to them) every time you ask about them.

This is true even if it’s a new situation that’s arisen, not an old one. For example, I often get students who write to me to tell me that something is wrong with their grade or the college online submission system. Instead of telling me exactly what is wrong and sending me a link to the page they had a problem with, the steps they took that lead to the problem, and a screenshot of the problem they encountered, they will simply tell me that they could not submit. Of course, there’s nothing I can do but write back and ask them to send me the details. Even if I respond within 48h, that means it will probably be five working days before I can sort out the problem and get back to the student.

Taking the very simple precaution of providing all the information in the first shot make it much more likely that you will get a response quickly. This way, you are not relying on the other person to research the issue before they reply. It also denies them the opportunity to ignore your e-mail, wait a week, and then ask for the details that you didn’t provide. It also shows them that you understand they are juggling other things and you value their time. This will be appreciated.

Image Copyright: Aleksandr Davydov  / 123RF Stock Photo