(MoneyWatch) Right now, my inbox contains about 200 messages that I haven't had time to deal with. I'm not referring to the thousands of messages that I've archived and saved for some future occasion, when they'll no doubt come in handy; I mean email that I haven't read, replied to or otherwise taken action on. If one of those messages happens to be from you, I apologize for not getting back to you yet.
But you know what? Sometimes, the fact that I haven't replied yet is at least partly your own fault. You wrote an email that was, frankly, more difficult to deal with than it should have been, so it fell to the back of the line. And at this point, the reality is that I might never get to it.
So how do you write an email that gets a fast response? In a nutshell, you want to make it as easy as possible for the recipient to read, understand and act on your message. After all, if your email is crafted for ease of handling, you're the one that gets answered quickly rather than drifting to the bottom of the slush pile. Helping your recipient helps you.
Here are my top rules for writing effective emails that will get you a fast reply:
Make the subject line descriptive and clear. Don't just click reply to a previous thread or a meeting request and enter something unrelated in the body. And if you're in the midst of a long email thread and find that the subject has changed substantially from where you started, re-title the email. It can be easy to lose track of the actual "ask" if the subject line is misleading.
Keep the recipients to the bare minimum. Don't cry wolf by including lots of irrelevant people on your email threads. Eventually, folks will start to tune out email from you if you get the reputation for sending everything to everyone, all the time.
Put the bottom line up front. This is probably the most important rule of them all: Don't waste recipients' time with a long preamble they'll have to wade through to get to the "ask." Start with the important bits at the top of the message, and save the context for later. That way they can read on for the details, but at least they know what you want within moments of opening the email.
Don't bury or co-mingle your asks. In addition to putting the ask right up front, make it clear what you want by putting each request in its own paragraph, ideally at the start of the paragraph. I often see emails in which someone asks for three or four things, and they bury these requests deep in a long paragraph. Break them out into their own 'graphs, and even consider putting the key ideas in bold. If you don't do this, don't be surprised if someone only responds to your first questions or request because they didn't see the others, and you'll need to send a follow-up to get the rest.
Proofread it. As I recently pointed out,in the sense that we all need to use the written word to communicate. Take the time to re-read your email before you pull the trigger -- you'd be surprised how often what makes sense in your head is borderline gibberish when it lands on the screen. A little proofing will make your prose easier to parse and, consequently, easier to respond to. I can attest to the fact that if I have to guess what someone meant, I'll generally move on and deal with other email that is easier to understand.