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Q. I have a reoccurring problem I am not sure how to deal with. I get emails that are so confusing that it takes me several minutes of deciphering before I can even start understanding the email. When I figure out what they are talking about in a general sense, then the email makes more sense. But even then, it is sometimes hard to know why I got the email and what is expected of me. Any tips?
A. This is an incredibly common problem, perhaps even a universal problem. Everyone complains about the problem, yet everyone seems to contribute to it. My first suggestion is for you to do your part to minimize the issue when you compose your own emails. How? Here are some tips:
- Try to come up with a subject line that actually adds value to the email. It can relate to the content of the email (“The Smith Project”) or provide a reason they are receiving the email (“For Your Information Only – Camping Test”) or both.
- Do not continue an email thread and shift topics. If you start an email thread about the Smith Project, and then after several volleys back and forth you start talking about this month’s sales goal, you create unnecessary confusion.
- Early in the email describe the reason you are sending it to a specific person or group of people, such as:
- For your information only (implies no action or reply needed).
- To ask them to take an action or perform a task.
- To request that they make a decision.
- If you are copying others on the email, make sure they really need to receive it. Do they really need the information in the email? Are you expecting them to take action or make a decision? If not, maybe they do not need to be copied.
- Be careful not to assume that the people you are communicating with understand the underlying assumptions, motivations and concepts of the topic at hand.
- Rewind and cover some of the information, decisions, history and developments that preceded this email if appropriate to add clarity.
- Explain the ultimate desired outcome.
- Conclude the email with a very brief summary of what you have said and what you expect as a result of the email.
You can do all of this and still have a short email. Use a few words wisely rather than use many words to convey a confusing message.
When you receive a confusing email, try this:
- Make sure you understand the underlying assumptions, motivations and concepts, and the ultimate desired outcome.
- If you need clarification from an email sent, ask “why?” -- repeatedly if necessary.
- If you need more information, more detail, ask “how?” -- repeatedly if necessary.
- Send them a link to this article.
If you have to ask “why” and “how” over and over again, perhaps the sender will learn to correct the original message, thus saving you both a lot of time and confusion.
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