If you send an email asking two or three questions and the reader only answers one, it’s because you didn’t make it easy for the person to respond.
Not all messages involve one simple question requiring one simple answer; sometimes the subject matter is more complex and you have two or three questions or you want to make two or three points. But many writers mention one topic in the subject line and devote the first paragraph or two to that topic without ever indicating to the reader that there are additional questions to follow.
So the reader reads the first couple of paragraphs, answers the question, and leaves, assuming that he or she is finished with the message.
If you want answers to multiple questions, you first need to make it clear to the reader that you have more than one question, and then you need to make it easy for the person to answer each one.
Start in the subject line. This often-neglected white space is the first place where you connect with the reader, the first place where you tell the reader “here’s why you need to read this.” Indicate there that you have questions. You might say Asking about meeting agenda or 3 questions re: new benefits policy.
Follow that with a strong opening sentence, such as I am wondering if you want to include topic A and topic B on the agenda for tomorrow’s budget meeting. You can discuss those in more detail in the body of the message, but do it the same order that you mentioned them in the opening sentence: topic A first, then topic B.
Or your first sentence can be Regarding the benefits policy, I need to ask you about A) enrollment deadline, B) dental coverage, and C) family leave. And that’s all you put in that opening sentence. Then the first paragraph, talk about A) the enrollment deadline, second paragraph, talk about B) the dental coverage, and in the third graph discuss C) family leave.
I have written previously in this blog about making the most of the first paragraph, and an effective opening is essential to writing a message with multiple questions. Make it clear you have questions, and how many, so that the reader doesn’t read one question and then leave, unaware that other questions were forthcoming.
In the body of the message, rather than folding multiple questions into one paragraph, break out the questions and present them individually to make it easier for the reader to process them.
Here are two versions of an email that I might write:
I am a writing coach who teaches corporate workshops, and I am doing research on how the brain processes language. I thought that because neuropsychology is your specialty, perhaps you would be the best person to contact. I am studying issues relating to why people have difficulty comprehending some sentences, so I am hoping you can help me. When we read words, why do we have an immediate image of “truck” but not “synergy”? I also am wondering how long a sentence can be before it becomes too long. Reading comprehension experts might be the best people to ask about this issue, but do bullets really make information easier to read and remember? Thank you for your help.
I am a corporate writing coach who is studying how the brain processes words and sentences. Given that language processing is your specialty, I would appreciate your help with three questions:
- When we read the word “truck,” we have an immediate image, but we don’t when we read “synergy.” Why?
- Why is it that when the brain reads a long sentence, it has a difficult time making sense of it and remembering the main idea?
- Putting information in bullets is popular. Does itemizing information really make it easier to process and remember?
Thanks very much for your help.
The ability to package information for easy readability reflects an organized mind, and demonstrates an ability to craft effective communication. It’s also in our best interests as writers if we want the reader to answer.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.