Technical writers know how to make documents and diagrams useful. That's our skill and subject expertise. Very often, we don't know a ton about what we're documenting - at least, we don't until we're well into the process. The same is generally true of many people to some degree. We all have to work with people who know more about some of the things than we know. We need to ask them to validate that our work is correct. We need to learn from them things that can't be found via Google or found in the company wiki.
So we email them.
And never hear back.
Photo by Elegance Thika / Unsplash
If you're the boss, it's easy. Employees generally mind their bosses. It's our coworkers who are more likely to "ignore" us. I put ignore in quotes because we can feel that way, but in reality, they probably aren't ignoring us. They might be. But in my experience, the odds are that we haven't made it easy for them to help us.
As time has gone on, I've gotten better at getting feedback on my work to the point where I rarely get "ignored". Below are some quick tips, pitfalls, and principles that have worked for me. They really boil down to "I do the extra work so it's extra easy for you to help me." But let's dig a little deeper.
Treat SMEs as volunteers
Even if they are in-house employees, unless it's their full-time job to be your SME, they have other things to juggle. Like you, they will be most responsive to tasks that seem most urgent and to people they like the best. Treat them with respect.
Make it quick. Simply, the easier it is to do right away, the more likely they are to do it. Rather than have the read a whole document, if you can, copy and paste a questionable bit to them, and pose your question in yes/no or true/false. When I do this, I get nearly 100% response.
Match their style of work. If they prefer IM, then IM your question. If they prefer email or a shared document, then do that.
Take on the burden
Take on the burden of writing a good email or sending a good instant message. It works wonders.
Google your question. I have a rule. If you can google a question and get an answer, you should. The only exception to this rule is my mother. But you, dear reader, need to function in the modern world. When someone emails or IMs me a question that Google could have answered, I often ignore it, sometimes respond politely, "I don't know, but I bet Google does," or I snarkily use lmgtfy.com. When I write people emails, I give them the same courtesy. Before asking a question, especially one that is not specific to that person's knowledge, I try googling it, using wikipedia, or any of the other free sources of informatiomn out there on the Internet. This approach saves them time, gets me my answers quicker, and doesn't risk making me look stupid unnecessarily. Win, win, win.
Write clearly. Reduce the use of pronouns.
Write briefly. Reduce the use of adjectives and adverbs. Take ten minutes to remove 20% of your words to save your readers 2 minutes of their life. They'll appreciate it.
Tell them what you need. Don't say "review". It's too vague. Say "fact-check", "sign off on", or whatever you need. Also say what you don't need: "No need to proofread this. I may have missed something small, but I'll go over it again."
Make it quick and easy
Yes/no. In my experience, I am more likely to get an answer to a yes/no question than to an essay prompt. Give only as much background is useful to help your reviewer understand the question and then give a quick, simple answer.
Visible questions. Put the question on a separate line with visual whitespace separating it from the background. That will draw the eye. Your expert reader might not need your background and this visual cue will help him or her skip right to the point.
Bullets. For that matter, writing with clear bullets, each about a single thing, really helps readability. Put the most important words of each bullet right at the front of the bullet so people know if that bit matters to them. This approach also aids inline response.
BLUF. BLUF is awesome. It stands for "bottom line up front". My subject-lines are never cute or vague when I am at work or want a response. They always say something like, "SIGN-OFF REQUIRED: final signature for pre-discussed expense." Combine a solid BLUF with the kind of response expected, such as "SIGN-OFF" or "RSVP" or even just "FYI".
Update the subject line when the subject changes. That way people don't get the idea that the topic is just trailing off.
Emails of 75-125 words get way more responses than longer or shorter emails. Don't believe me? Check out Boomerang and a study they did. They do this stuff for a living.
Use a readability tool to make sure the reading level is easy (under 8th grade) and that the document isn't loaded with unintentionally negative language.
Death by group email
Don't send group emails if you want a response. Committees exist to diffuse responsibility. When you send a group email, you are sending your work to a committee to review. Each will defer to the sage advice of all the others and you will rarely get a response. Unless I want each member to know that others are working on the thing, I just send it to each reviewer individually. You can copy and paste the text in a separate email to each reader so it's not hard. BCC is not the same thing because people know that they are part of a group. The only thing is, it is now an anonymous group.
That totally improves accountability. <--- sarcasm
Tweak the prose to indicate why you've asked that reader's advice.
Use the recipient's name in the salutation. Use the name of the reader a couple of other times in the email if it is long enough to accommodate repetition without sounding dumb. People like reading our names almost as much as we like hearing them.
Follow up nicely
Follow up gently if you don't get a response - before y actually need it. When I send emails that need a response, I make a to-do item on my to-do app so it reminds me. Alternately, if you have an email client that can snooze emails and restore them to your inbox on a schedule, you might use that. Such apps are another good way to remind yourself to follow up without the stress of having to remember.
Don't be shy
You're usually allowed to go over to your coworker's desk and speak with them in person. Or call on the phone. Or use a virtual presence device to get their attention. Or something.
If you do so cheerfully and are considerate, they probably won't mind. You can start building the sort of long-term relationship that makes them want to get back to you quickly.
By employing these tips, over the years, I've gone from getting responses rarely to almost always getting a good, timely response.
Lemme know what you think.
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