How to respond to email messages that contain multiple questions

Email messages often contain a number of questions that the sender wants the recipient to answer. I find that many responses to such messages are much more difficult to understand than they should be. Not because of grammar or spelling errors, but because of how the responses are structured and formatted.

I’d like to share two tips that, in my opinion, will make responses to multiple question messages much easier and quicker to read.

1. Reply inline and separate your answers from each question with a blank line

Top posting a reply to a message with a single question is one thing, but when the message you are replying to contains multiple questions, top posting is just asking for confusion. Quote the original message and insert your answers after each question instead, like this:

> What should we do about the thingamajig on the home page?

I think we should make it a doodad instead of a thingamajig,
though marketing may want to use a gizmo.

> When will we get real content to work with?

No sooner than launch day.

2. Do not assume that the recipient will see any formatting

There are plenty of people who, either by preference or because of technical circumstances, will not see any HTML/Rich text formatting you make in your message. So relying on font size, font weight or font colour is a bad idea.

In other words, do not start your response by writing something like “Hi. You can find my answers in red text below.” This can be very confusing, especially if you do not quote the original message properly as explained in tip #1.

You can use formatting to highlight your answers if you really want to, but do not use it as the only means to distinguish them from the text you are quoting.

Simple but effective

That’s it. Two very simple rules that will make your email easier to read and reduce the risk of your answers being misinterpreted.

Posted on February 15, 2010 in Productivity