People don't read. This is especially true for e-mail. People often check their mail in between other activities and will not take the time to properly read what you've written — especially if you want something from them. So here are some little psychological tricks to make your e-mails more effective. (This applies to some other things, like forum posts, as well.) I'm not sure how much of this I figured out myself, but in my experience these techniques work.
First, and this may seem very obvious, be very clear on what you want. If I receive an e-mail that is vague about the precise answer or action expected from me, I'll happily ignore it — less work for me! Here's a real-life example:
I used to be able to access your website from my mobile phone. Now this no longer works. Have you changed anything?
Not that I know of, and I should know if anything had changed.
Does that make me a bastard for not helping him? Doesn't matter, the point is that you don't want to be the person on the other side of this conversation. He could have written instead:
I used to be able to access your website from my mobile phone. Now this no longer works. Do you have any idea what could cause this problem?
This would force me to think about this problem and come up with some possible causes and solutions. (Yes, I could also have answered that with a simple “yes” or “no”, but I'm not that big a bastard.)
You may know that the first and last sentences of a paragraph are the most important. In my experience, it mostly comes down to the last one, and the last sentence in your e-mail in particular. This is the sentence that keeps on ringing in people's heads after they read (or even skimmed!) your mail. So make sure the last sentence counts.
If you need a piece of information from someone, or you need someone to do something for you, start your e-mail in whatever way you wish. You'll probably want to explain what you need and why. People will refer back to this when answering your mail. But if you want to avoid that your e-mail ends up marked as ‘read’ and forgotten, remember to always finish the e-mail with a concrete question. For example, would you feel more inclided to respond to this:
You showed part of a movie on YouTube in your presentation, but I cannot find it. But your presentation was great! I really loved the very visual way in which you presented this matter.
or to this:
Your presentation was great! I really loved the very visual way in which you presented this matter. You also showed part of a YouTube movie, but I cannot find it. Could you please send me the URL?
If your mail is a reply in a thread where you've asked the question before, it can be a good idea to restate the question.
If you want to ask multiple things, you cannot all put them in the last sentence. Put multiple items into a list, either bulleted or (preferably) numbered. In this way, it becomes very hard for someone to (consciously or unconsciously) ignore one of the items. Not so long ago, I wrote something like:
You could send me a file containing a test case, saved from the program. […] I would also like to know from Ben what can be improved on the export function. […]
I never got a reply. This could better be formulated as:
- Could you please save a file from the program and send it to me?
- Could you please ask Ben what he thinks can be improved on the export function?
Observing these simple rules in the e-mails you send can make your life just a little bit easier.