If the answer you want is a question, change the (email) conversation

If the answer you want is a question, change the (email) conversation
July 31, 2019 Beth Nyland

Dear Corporate Poet & Cutter of Crap:

Last week I sent my team an email message about something important. As thorough as I tried to be, I totally expected questions and comments. So, as always, I closed the message with “please let me know if you have questions.” I meant it. I sincerely want people to ask me their questions.

You know what I heard back? Nothing! I know people have questions, but they’re not asking them. How can I convince them to speak up?

Virtual crickets are crushing my soul

Dear Virtual Crickets:

How frustrating! You’re craving all the right things: questions, clarity, conversation. So, when you send an important message and no one responds, you feel like you’re tossing great ideas into a deep, empty hole. 

I’m tempted to be a smart ass. Don’t you realize no one reads? Stop using email to convey important information. Instead, call a meeting, get everyone together, explain yourself, and ask for questions then and there.

But let’s face it: (1) schedules and geography don’t always make that possible and (2) people clam up in meetings, too.

So, here are four practical ways to change the conversation. Adjusting your approach might be just the thing that inspires others to raise those questions.

1. Vary the way you phrase the invitation.

People who often receive messages from you are sure to notice if you always say the same thing … and they’ll get so used to the language, they’ll read right past it. “Please let me know if you have any questions” becomes a throw-away signature line.

Here are a few other ways to say it:

    • I know you’ll have questions, and I want to answer them. Let’s schedule time to talk next week.
    • No doubt this plan will leave you wondering about a few details. When you reply to this message, please tell me what more you’d like to know.
    • Hopefully, I’ve answered all your questions. But if I haven’t, please say so. You’re welcome to send me questions by email, or schedule time to talk in person.

2. Give questions headline status.

“Ask me questions” is a call to action. The bottom of a message may be the conventional spot for a call to action, but who says you have to be conventional? (At Story Mode, we certainly don’t. For more unconventional wisdom, check out Jill’s latest post, Eyeballs Do Not An Audience Make.)

If you don’t want anyone to miss your invitation to raise questions, elevate it to the top of the page:

This message summarizes the plan for Project XYZ. As you read, please make note of your questions, then share those questions by replying directly to me by end of day Thursday. I’ll assemble everyone’s questions and send answers to the group on Monday.  

Want to give your request for questions even greater visibility? Put it in the subject line. I’d open a message titled, “What questions do you have?” Wouldn’t you?

3. Bake anticipated questions into your message.

People love FAQs. The Q&A format is easy and sometimes even fun to read. So, after outlining a plan or project, you might follow the main content by predicting a few questions and offering the answers. You can even repeat key points from the body of the message, emphasizing crucial details like deadlines. Here’s an example:

A project this big is bound to raise a few questions. I’ll answer a few here. But if I’ve missed something, please reply to this message with any other questions you have.

Q: How does this project tie to the overall strategy?
A: Blah blah blah.

Q: What’s the deadline for my response?
A: [Give a specific date and time.]

Q: If I have more questions, who should I contact?
A: Me! Please email your questions to me at [address] or book time on my calendar so we can cover everything one-on-one.

If your message is long, you could produce the FAQ as a separate communication to send a day or two later. This follow-up may help reinforce the original message, catch people who blew past it, and give everyone yet another invitation to respond.

4. Invite others to change along with you.

At your next team meeting (and maybe the next two or three meetings after that), be direct. Explain that conversation is a priority—not just in meetings and hallways and messaging apps, but also by email. Be vocal about sincerely wanting their questions and having a chance to answer them—and emphasize that you want everyone on the team to feel comfortable asking and answering. Tell them you’ve begun to change your approach (by following the suggestions above), and ask them to join you in making a concerted shift in the way your team communicates, starting with honest questions and answers.

Q: What’s stifling conversation in your organization?

I really want to know. So tell me!

The Corporate Poet & Cutter of Crap

Photo Credit: Creative Commons image from page 42 of “Pinocchio: the tale of a puppet” (1911)


Get updates from us!