Every now and again, I’ll receive one of those emails that makes me say: “Huh?” My face contorts into an expression of massive confusion, and I’m left not quite sure what to respond. I can tell from the length or the content of the email that a response is needed, but something about the message has made even getting started on a response a huge headache.
For those days where you’re faced with a similar conundrum, here’s my advice: Do not engage the non-sensical email, and throw it back in the other person’s court instead.
To help you out, I’ve compiled my suggested responses to the four most common types of confusing emails I receive.
1. The Rambling Non-Ask
This type of email is the worst offender. Usually quite long, with a lot of detail, the rambling non-ask email is often unstructured—and unclear as to what the sender is really after. You re-read it (then re-read it again after you’ve had some coffee), and realize that it’s not your fuzzy brain—it’s some seriously fuzzy communication.
Thanks so much for your email, [name]. There’s a lot to think about here. In the interest of getting back to you promptly, could you help me understand exactly what you’d like me to assist with?
2. The Context-Less Ask
This type of email wants you to help make a decision or answer a question, but does not give you sufficient data or context to do so. (Think: “Can I get some thoughts on the Miller proposal?”)
Thanks so much for your email, [name]. Can you please give me a little more context on the situation here, and send over [the information about or data necessary to answer]? Once you send that over, I’ll be able to respond.
3. The Laundry List
This type of email often includes a crazy list of bullet points, action items, questions, and commentary—and will require a lot of time not only to get through, but to answer. Your approach should be slightly different, depending on whether the sender has the authority to assign you work or not, but either way, ask him or her to prioritize and split up the work.
Your Response (if it’s Someone Who Can Assign You Work)
Thanks so much for your email, [name]. I’ll get started on this [this week / as soon as the new product launches / after the conference]. In the interest of getting back to you promptly, could you help me prioritize the list below? Are any of the items nice-to-have? I expect it will take me [X days/hours] to pull this together, which may delay [other project]. Let me know if you’d like me to get started sooner.
Your Response (if it’s Someone Who Shouldn’t Be Assigning You Work)
Thanks so much for your email, [name]. I’ll need to get approval from [your boss or another relevant senior person’s name] to get started on this. Let me know if any of the items are nice-to-have and how you would prioritize the list below so that I can present [boss/senior person’s name] with an overview of how much time this will take to complete.
4. The Cold Email for Advice
This type of email is one you often want to answer, since you want to help others who are asking for help, but some people are better at asking for advice than others. When a near-stranger emails you asking for something nebulous or, worse, to answer more questions than a college application, consider having him or her reframe the ask.
Hi [name], it’s nice to meet you. I’m quite busy with work at the moment, but do want to help and would be able to answer your most pressing question over email. What’s the #1 question that my background and experience can help you with?
In short, don’t make someone else’s inability to communicate his or her needs clearly let more work (or stress) fall on your plate. With a little finesse, you can move the burden of understanding and prioritizing emails back into the sender’s court, reducing response time and saving you a big headache in the process!