Clarity and asking questions

Before hitting send on an email asking a question of somebody, put yourself in their shoes. Have you included everything necessary? Imagine receiving the email you’re about to send. You may realise you’re missing a lot of important detail you assume they know. What’s in your head is invisible to the recipient.

Always aim for total clarity. Include more information than you initially think you should. Think how the recipient is going to act on the email and ensure they have everything required to do so.

Clarity is important as it saves email back and forth, frustration, time, prevents misunderstanding and gets you the right answer.

You may not get an answer at all if you don’t ask correctly (never dress a question as a comment, instead be direct and candid). People may de-prioritise your question if there’s increased effort required to answer. Your job is to reduce the amount of work the recipient has to do when they receive your email.

A common mistake is to structure an email in an essay format. This is how we’re taught to write, we list several points and then join the dots at the end with a conclusion. Doing so when asking a question of somebody isn’t optimal. You should start with the key point first—a news story format—so that the reader can absorb your points intelligently and isn’t guessing what you mean. A secondary benefit is they can easily triage the email, ie. find out the reason it was sent and then decide to process now or read fully later.

Always ask questions to just one person. Asking more than one means it’s a viable option for all recipients to leave it to the other. And always try to ask questions in public.

Limit emails to one question, don’t pile them up and certainly don’t add dependencies between them unless absolutely necessary. Multiple questions in an email increases the work in both parsing and replying so the recipient may not reply as quickly as they would to a single request. Dependencies make parsing and understanding hard work, which is the opposite of your goal.

Send URLs, not just screenshots.

Read back over your email before sending and ask yourself if you’d be happy to receive it and if you’d be able to take action without further clarification.

There’s a satisfaction in trimming a question down to the bare essentials and maintaining a high signal-to-noise ratio. The care you take in this is often reciprocated by the recipient and your answer should be nicely thought out and easy to understand as a result.

Thanks to Chris Lamb and Rob Barham for their input on previous drafts of this.

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