Ask any professional what kinds of messages they spend the majority of their sit-down time at a computer writing and responding to. They will likely tell you that they’re requesting information or action and replying to those with answers or acknowledgements. Though you’ve probably written many of these yourself, you may need to polish your style and organization to meet a professional standard. After all, the quality of the responses you get or can give crucially depends on the quality of the questions you ask or are asked. Let’s look at several such scenarios in detail.
Perhaps the simplest and most common routine message type is where the sender offers up information that helps the receiver. These may not be official memos, but they follow the same structure, as shown in Table 8.1.1 below.
|1. Opening||Main point of information||Hi Karin,
I just saw a CFP for a new funding opportunity you can apply for via the Ministry of Agriculture.
|2. Body||Information context and further details||Find it on the Greenbelt Fund’s Local Food Literacy Grant Stream page. If you haven’t already been doing this, you should also check out the Ministry’s general page on Funding Programs and Support to connect with any other grants etc. relevant to the good work you do.|
|3. Closing||Action regarding the information||It looks like the deadline for proposals is at the end of the week, though, so you might want to get on it right away.
Notice here how the writer made the reader’s job especially easy by providing links to the recommended webpages using the hyperlinking feature (Ctrl. + K) in their email.
Replies to such information shares involve either a quick and concise thank-you message or carry the conversation on if it’s part of an ongoing project, initiative, or conversation. Recall that you should change the email subject line as the topic evolves (see §4.1.3 above). Information shares to a large group, such as a departmental memo to 60 employees, don’t usually require acknowledgement. If everyone wrote the sender just to say thanks, the barrage of reply notifications would frustrate the sender, who would be forced to sort through replies and differentiate between messages with valuable information and mere acknowledgments. Only respond if you have valuable information to share with all the recipients or just the sender.
Managers, clients, and coworkers alike send and receive requests for information and action all day. Because these provide the recipient with direction on what to do, the information that comes back or action that results from such requests can only be as good as the instructions given. Such messages must therefore be well organized and clear about expectations, opening directly with a clearly stated general request (see §3.1.1 on direct-approach messages)—unless you anticipate resistance to the request (see §3.1.2 on indirect-approach messages)—and proceeding with background and more detailed instruction if necessary as we see in Table 8.1.2 below.
|Subject Line||3- to 7-word title||Website update needed by Monday|
|1. Opening||Main question or action request||Hello, Mohamed:
Please update the website by adding the new hires to the Personnel page.
|2. Body||Information or action request context, plus further details||We’ve hired three new associates in the past few weeks. Using the contents of the attached folder that contains their bios and hi-res pics, please do the following:
|3. Closing||Deadlines and/or submission details||Sorry for the short notice, but could we have this update all wrapped up by Monday? We’re meeting with some investors early next week and we’d like the site to be fully up to date by then.
Never forget the importance of saying “please” when asking someone to do something (see §2.3 for more on courteous language). Notice also that lists in the message body help break up dense detail so that request messages are more reader-friendly (see §2.4 ). All of the efforts that the writer of the above message made to deliver a reader-friendly message will pay off when the recipient performs the requested procedure according to these clearly worded expectations.
Effective organization and style are critical in requests for action that contain detailed instructions. Whether you’re explaining how to operate equipment, apply for funding, renew a membership, or submit a payment, the recipient’s success depends on the quality of the instruction. Vagueness and a lack of detail can result in confusion, mistakes, and requests for clarification. Too much detail can result in frustration, skimming, and possibly missing key information. Profiling the audience and gauging their level of knowledge is key to providing the appropriate level of detail for the desired results.
Look at any assembly manual and you’ll see that the quality of its readability depends on the instructions being organized in a numbered list of parallel imperative sentences. As opposed to the indicative sentences that have a grammatical subject and predicate (like most sentences you see here), imperative sentences drop the subject (the doer of the action, which is assumed to be the reader in the case of instructions). This omission leaves just the predicate, which means that the sentence starts with a verb. In Table 5.2.3 below, for instance, the reader can easily follow the directions by seeing each of the six main steps open with a simple verb describing a common computer operation: Copy, Open, Type, Paste (twice), and Find.
If you begin any imperative sentence with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first (such as this imperative sentence does), move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the sentence. (If the previous sentence followed its own advice, it would look like this: “Move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the imperative sentence if you begin it with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first.”) Finally, surround the list with a proper introduction and closing as shown in Table 5.2.3 below.
|Outline||Content||Example Email Message|
|Subject Line||Procedure name||How to find an undated webpage date|
|1. Opening||Reader benefits||Hi team,
Please find below instructions for how to discover the date that a webpage was posted or last updated if it doesn’t say so itself.
|2. Context||Context for the procedure||Sometimes you need to know when exactly a webpage was posted or updated, but it either doesn’t say or has a copyright notice at the bottom with the present year, and you know it was posted years ago, so that’s not accurate. Rather than indicate “n.d.” (for “no date”) when citing and referencing a source in APA style, there is a way to find out the exact date when the webpage was posted or last updated.|
|3. Instructions||Introductory clause and numbered list, each with an imperative sentence (beginning with a verb)||Please follow the procedure below in your Google Chrome browser:
|4. Closing||Specific action request, closing thought, summary, or deadline with a reason||If you encounter a webpage where this hack doesn’t work at all, go with the year given in the copyright notice at the bottom or “n.d.” in your citation and reference if it doesn’t even have a copyright year.
Though helpful on its own, the above message would be much improved if it included illustrative screenshots at each step. Making a short video of the procedure, posting it to YouTube, and adding the link to the message would be even more effective.
Combining DOs and DON’Ts is an effective way to help your audience complete the instructed task without making common rookie mistakes. Always begin with the DOs after explaining the benefits or rewards of following a procedure, not with threats and heavy-handed DON’Ts. Most people are better motivated by chasing the carrot than fleeing the stick (see §3.3 ). You can certainly follow up with helpful DON’Ts and consequences if necessary, but phrased in courteous language, such as “For your safety, please avoid operating the machinery when not 100% alert or you may risk dismemberment.”
If you expect resistance to your request because you’re asking a lot of someone, perhaps because you know what you’re asking goes against company policy, an indirect approach is more effective (see §3.1.2 on indirect message organization). Ideally, you’ll make such persuasive pitches in person or on the phone so that you can use a full range of verbal and non-verbal cues. When it’s important to have them in writing, however, such requests should be clear and easy to spot, but buffered by goodwill statements and reasonable justifications, as shown in Table 5.2.4 below.
|Subject Line||Strategically vague||Furnace repair needed|
|1. Opening||Buffer pleasantries||Hello Mike,
We’ve been really pleased with the furnace and air conditioner installed by Redmond Heating & Air five years ago, and we’ve recommended you to several friends because of your exceptional customer service.
|2. Context||Background justification||A few days ago, however, our furnace suddenly stopped working. It’s a bit of a mystery because we’ve been changing the filter regularly every month for the past five years and had you in here for regular check-ups every year, following the terms of the warranty. When we checked the warranty, however, we saw that it expired a week ago. Talk about bad timing!|
|3. Main point||Information or action request, to which you will expect some resistance||Given that we’ve been such responsible and loyal customers, and that we’ve sent business your way a few times, we’re wondering if we can still get you out here to repair the furnace under the terms of the warranty. Can we pretend that it’s expiring next week instead of last week?|
|4. Closing||Deadlines and/or implementation details||I know this must be a busy time for you and we’re asking a lot already, but since it’s starting to drop below zero outside and probably won’t take long to do the same inside here, we would appreciate it if you could come as soon as possible.
We’d be forever in your debt if you could help us out!
When responding to information or action requests, simply deliver the needed information or confirm that the action has been or will be completed unless you have good reasons for refusing (see §5.4 on negative messages). Stylistically, such responses should follow the 6 Cs of effective business style (see §2.3), especially courtesies such as prioritizing the “you” view, audience benefits, and saying “please” for follow-up action requests. Such messages are opportunities to promote your company’s products and services. Ensure the accuracy of all details, however, because courts will consider them legally binding, even in an email, if disputes arise—as the Vancouver Canucks organization discovered in a battle with Canon (Smith, 2015). Manager approval may therefore be necessary before sending. Organizationally, a positive response to an information request delivers the main answer in the opening, proceeds to give more detail in the body if necessary, and ends politely with appreciation and goodwill statements, as shown in Table 8.1.3 below.
|Subject Line||3- to 7-word title||Re: Accommodation and conference rooms for 250 guests|
|1. Opening||Main information or action confirmation||Greetings, Mr. Prendergast:
Thank you so much for choosing the Vancouver Marriott for your spring 2020 sales conference. We would be thrilled to accommodate 250 guests and set aside four conference rooms next May 25 through 29.
|2. Body||Further details||In answer to your other questions:
|3. Closing||Deadlines and/or action details||You can visit our website at www.vancouvermarriott.com for additional information about our facilities such as gyms, a spa, and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Call us at 1-604-555-8400 if you have additional questions.
Please book online as soon as possible to ensure that all 250 guests can be accommodated during your preferred date range. For such a large booking, we encourage you to call also during the booking process.
Again, we are very grateful that you are considering the Vancouver Marriott for your conference.
We look forward to making your stay memorable.
Rufus Killarney, Booking Manager
- Follow best practices when sharing information, requesting information or action, and replying to such messages.
Pick a partner and email him/her a set of instructions following the message outline template and example given in Table 184.108.40.206. It must be a procedure with at least five steps that is familiar to you (e.g., how to prepare your favourite drink) but unfamiliar to your partner. Can your partner follow your procedure and get the results you desire?
Smith, C. L. (2015, May 8). Canada: When does an email form a legally-binding agreement? Ask the Canucks. http://www.mondaq.com/canada/x/395584/Contract+Law/When+Does+An+Email+Form+A+LegallyBinding+Agreement+Ask+The+Canucks