Email tip: Don’t forget to ask your question


Sometimes people get so caught up in their problem that they forget to ask a question.

My customer has noticed that blah blah blah blah, but if they do blah blah, then they get blah blah blah. This is different from blah blah blah, where blah blah blah. But neither is what the customer is expecting, which is blah blah blah. After installing blah blah blah, we found that the behavior changed to blah blah blah. What the customer is trying to do is blah blah blah. As a workaround, they're doing blah blah blah before doing the blah blah, and then doing another blah blah afterwards.

Yeah, that's all very nice, but what's your question? Is this just an informational message, or are you looking for help? And if you're looking for help, what specifically do you need help with?

Often, people will indeed get around to asking their question, but they'll bury it inside the body so it's hard to find. (This is especially the case for people who have email signatures that are two hundred words long, the subject of another rant entirely. Even if they put the question at the end, you can't find it since what's the "end" of the message is really "two thirds of the way through the message" since the last third of the message is email signature.)

If you're going to have a long introduction before you get to your question, please announce your questions so that people who are skimming your message can find the interesting bit.

After that long introductory paragraph, you might continue with the following:

My questions:

  1. Does this technique appear sound?
  2. Is there a way to get the blah blah blah to happen automatically when I do a blah blah blah?
Comments (45)
  1. JamesNT says:

    This is the number one problem I have with my clients.  I have gotten entire books from them explaining all kinds of stuff in the gravest of detail only for the whole thing to leave me wondering what they wanted to begin with.

    And then they get mad when I don’t respond the same day.

    JamesNT

  2. Rob says:

    This drives me crazy. When I realized it was driving me crazy, I figured I should stop doing it myself, so I’ve been trying to use this pattern:

    Hello,

    The question I have is the first sentence of this email, devoid of context?

    To clarify and add context, the customer is blah blah and wants to blah blah blah.

  3. richard says:

    I think the problem is in how people process information. For engineering types, we just want “the facts”, but most other people seem to want “the story”.

    As one marketing aphorism goes, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”.

    I want the facts, not the story. After I get the facts, I might want parts of the story (just to ensure I have all the facts).

    This shows up in other areas of life. Summarizing a telephone conversation, for example. My wife will summarize a 3 minute conversation in about 15 minutes. I will summarize an hour long call in under a dozen words.

    [When solving technical problems, the story is often very important. But a story without a question is just a story. -Raymond]
  4. MarPizza says:

    To be true, most of the time the question is the wrong question! So more often than not the question is irrelevant and context is the only thing that could help answering the mail.

  5. Adam says:

    Hmmm….most email software I’m aware of (including web-based mail clients) finds the "– " line that marks the beginning of a signature and renders that part of the message differently from the body. Finding the end of the message is therefore really easy.

    Does your client not do that?

    But, yes, I agree with your recommendation – question first, discussion after. Putting a short version of the question in the "Subject" line, even better.

  6. Aaron says:

    Maybe they don’t actually have a question, and they’re just e-mailing you to complain about their problems.

  7. Mike Dimmick says:

    Adam: very old skool. I don’t think I know anyone else who actually uses the Usenet ‘standard’ for signature separator (dash-dash-space-return.) As it happens, Outlook does not remove a signature following this.

    Mike Dimmick

  8. Mikkin says:

    This is related to an earlier rant…er…discussion about being added to an email chain without explanation.  The general principle is that any communication should clearly identify its purpose up front, including what is expected or wanted from the recipient.  Otherwise there are bound to be misunderstandings and unfulfilled expectations.

  9. Jess Sightler says:

    Yes, outlook stinks.

    Honestly, though, it’s not the verbose signatures that bother me so much as the ones that have images in them.  Why do you think I want a 13KB file along with every email from you again?

  10. ::Wendy:: says:

    Being asked a question is an extremely useful start.  

    I am normally asked the wrong question.  This is less useful,  especially without a context (story).  I don’t want a story.  I want to know how the answer to the question will be used – a predicted ideal future.  

    Often my clients are attached to their stories and thier solution route…  ..the question they;ve decided will solve their problem.

    I normally focus on discovering how the answer will be used before putting resources into gathering the right information to answer the question….

  11. Jess Sightler says:

    Er, good point… I guess I just assumed most clients did it like Thunderbird.  Oh well…

  12. Interesting that this point is raised to do. I was a witness to an email conversation that had several PAGES of life stories with no real question or resolution! It seems that sometimes people are scared to ask a direct question and others are scared to give a direct answer in case it’s somehow wrong.

  13. Adam says:

    Raymond > Thunderbird and Kmail are not text-based. Moreover, although Thunderbird is multi-platform, it gets more influence from Windows than any other platform.[0]

    Arlie > "Signatures are excuses for thinking"? Huh?

    Sorry – As far as I recall, every other mail client I’ve used does this. Is that better?

    (See "profiles" – a solution to the single-user status of Windows 9x/ME that is still in the Unix versions. Also see the assumption in the updater that all users can generally download and install updates to system software, again still compiled into the Unix versions. etc…)

  14. John says:

    My email signature contains the complete works of Shakespeare.  I especially enjoy responding to people with simple one-word answers like "Yes" or "No".

  15. Darryl says:

    Well now I know why I keep getting — above my sig in thunderbird.  I have been manually deleting that for ages.  

  16. BryanK says:

    John — so was your signature typed in by an infinite number of monkeys, too?  :-P

  17. joeri says:

    GMail does add

    automatically when you have a signature (at least in text mode, don’t know about html, I never use that anyway)

  18. Philip Taylor says:

    The first mail client I used was Turnpike, which was graphical and Windows-based and did the "– " line for signatures. Now I use Thunderbird and Gmail, which still add the separator automatically and colour everything after it in grey – but I had to send myself an email to see how the mail clients coloured it, since I couldn’t find any messages from anyone else who uses that format.

    I find it slightly amusing when I get emails from a certain person with two lines of useful message content, followed by

    "——————— End of message text ——————–", "Please consider the environment before printing this email", and then twenty eight lines of legal disclaimers and adverts for the company’s web site, then the headers and content of the message being replied to, then another eight lines of legal disclaimers at the end. I think the environment would be far happier if they cut down on some of the trimmings.

  19. Steve says:

    All nitpickers shoud die a very slow, very boring death…

  20. M Hotchin says:

    I’m surprised no-one has linked to this yet….

    http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

  21. Eric Steven Raymond says:

    re: link to smart questions

    Well I can tell why Raymond didn’t link to it…

    [Questions Not to Ask Section]

    Q: I’m having problems with my Windows machine. Can you help?

    A: Yes. Throw out that Microsoft trash and install an open-source operating system like Linux or BSD.

    [Insults are always a classy way to make an argument. -Raymond]
  22. oldskool says:

    To all weenies who claim the — signature stuff is a standard, could you please point to an RFC or an ANSI standard instead of "well, that’s how all the other thingies do it".  

  23. David Walker says:

    Adam:  "(See "profiles" – a solution to the single-user status of Windows 9x/ME that is still in the Unix versions."

    Outlook itself has had user profiles for a long time, even under Windows 9x/ME.

  24. Adam says:

    Mike: Don’t most email clients *automatically* add the “– “? My .signature doesn’t need to contain a “– ” as Thunderbird and Kmail both automatically add it for me.

    So, it’s Outlook *again* that fails to follow simple, well-established, implemented by every other mail client in existence guidelines?

    (Grrr….top posting by default…)

    [Text-based mail clients with a unix background, perhaps. But few outside that world. Yahoo doesn’t. Gmail doesn’t. Lotus Notes doesn’t. Outlook doesn’t. (I think when you said “.signature” you gave away your bias.) -Raymond]
  25. Arlie Davis says:

    > So, it’s Outlook *again* that fails to follow simple, well-established,

    > implemented by every other mail client in existence guidelines?

    Oh, get a grip.  If Microsoft wasted (yes, wasted) time on a "feature" like dropping part of a message because a line contained "– ", we would have lawyers crawling up our asses the second someone’s email didn’t display in the way that they "know" was proper.

    Signatures are excuses for thinking, anyway.

    Also, you’re lying.  I’ve used lots of email clients, and your claim that "every other mail client in existence" does this is simply false.    Yet more *nix weenie whining and posturing.

  26. Philip Taylor says:

    could you please point to an RFC or an ANSI standard

    It’s recognised and given special treatment in at least RFC 3676 ("There is a long-standing convention in Usenet news which also commonly appears in Internet mail of using "– " as the separator line between the body and the signature of a message").

    It is merely a convention, because it’s really not important enough for anyone to bother trying to standardise, and it’s perfectly fine if people choose a different convention – but for this particular discussion, it has a relevant practical benefit over the other convention (of not using any separator) because of the issue of telling where the message ends and where the signature starts.

  27. Ben Cooke says:

    The main problem with the oldschool "– " signature separator in this day and age is that most signatures use HTML. Most companies seem to start their standard signatures with <hr />. Since HTML does not consider whitespace significant, it’s not immediately obvious how the "– " would be located.

    I am, however, an old-school weirdo that still sends plain text email. I even made a special version of my company’s standard signature that looks the same in HTML mode but degrades nicely to text mode… but I always send it in text mode. (I was hoping to get it adopted as the company standard, so that when I *view* messages in plain text mode it wouldn’t look so ridiculous. I failed, however, because several mail clients don’t like the use of CSS in a signature.)

  28. Mike says:

    The opposite problem is probably even more common.  Somebody will ask a question with absolutely no context and you *just know* that if you give a similiarly context-free answer (assuming that’s even possible) they’re go tearing off in the wrong direction.  Thus the ever-popular reply of "what are you really trying to do?"

  29. Dean Harding says:

    > Outlook itself has had user profiles for a long time, even under Windows 9x/ME.

    I think he was trying to show the "Windows-ness" coming through, not that profiles are some sort of *good* feature.

    > Q: I’m having problems with my Windows machine. Can you help?

    >

    > A: Yes. Throw out that Microsoft trash and install an open-source

    > operating system like Linux or BSD.

    Heh, the very next "question-not-to-ask" fits in with this one nicely, too :-)

  30. Dean Harding says:

    Oh and on the topic of signatures, the most annoying ones are the ones with images (though that’s pretty bad) — the most annoying ones are the *animated* ones where you’ve got bits of text flying in from the sides, or fading in, or something like that…

    Personally, my signature consists simply of my given name, followed by a period (bolded in HTML mode for effect ;)

  31. jerith says:

    Arlie said:

    Oh, get a grip.  If Microsoft wasted (yes, wasted) time

    on a "feature" like dropping part of a message because

    a line contained "– ", we would have lawyers crawling

    up our asses the second someone’s email didn’t display

    in the way that they "know" was proper.

    Most mail clients I’ve used don’t drop the sig block, they just render it differently.  Thunderbird, for example, displays it with a lighter font.  This means you can still read it should you so desire, but can easily skip it when you want to.  I have gotten into the habit of recognising the "shape" of the sigs I see regularly and at least scanning the ones I don’t recognise.

    This is, IMHO, a far more useful feature than most of the crud that gets packed into mail clients — especially given the number of messages I see with sigs longer than the message content.

  32. Name required says:

    could you please point to an RFC or an ANSI standard

    so 1036.

    <<If  a  poster or posting agent does append a signature to an article, the signature SHOULD be preceded with  a  delimiter line  containing  (only)  two hyphens (ASCII 45) followed by one blank (ASCII  32).   Posting  agents  SHOULD  limit  the length  of  signatures,  since  verbose  excess bordering on abuse is common if no restraint is imposed;  4  lines  is  a common limit.>>

  33. BryanK says:

    And in case someone says that "Name Required"’s RFC wording leaves wiggle room for MUAs — you’re right, it does leave some.  But not much: the meaning of SHOULD is "you really should do it this way; there may exist special circumstances where you don’t need to, but it’s not usually a good idea".

    See RFC 2119 (http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2119.txt).

    (I am assuming that RFC 1036 has to do with e-mail, right?  I thought it was RFC 2822 myself, but hey whatever.)

  34. Anonymous says:

    Sig blocks that start canonically have gone out of fashion, and the restriction that sig blocks should be 4 lines at most has long gone the way of the dodo. You can’t expect managers and company lawyers everywhere to squeeze the company logo, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail and street addresses and legal disclaimers in four lines.

    Over-long, undelimited signatures are as ubiquitous as top-posting, excessive quoting and garish HTML mail in the new corporate world. Best learn to live with it, unless you feel like tilting at wind mills.

  35. Legooolas says:

    Whilst probably not directly relevant, I use `t-prot’ (http://freshmeat.net/projects/t-prot/) to remove things like overly-long signatures, top-posting, excessive quoting etc from emails I view.  There might be something similar in the windows world that can reduce the pain of reading such incoherent emails?

  36. Brother Laz says:

    "The opposite problem is probably even more common.  Somebody will ask a question with absolutely no context"

    Hell yes. I maintain a game mod, and nearly half of all email questions I get consist of a single sentence, usually one that doesn’t make any sense.

    ‘can u help me install the mod’

    ‘it doesnt work, help plzzzzzz’

    ‘i downloaded this, what do i do now’

    ‘how do i use this file’

    ‘ur game crashed can u help me????’

    ‘hey what file do i need for this?????’

    Etc.

    To add insult to injury, usually the title of the email is something like ‘hey’ or ‘heeeeeelp’.

    Yes, I did put my email address into the readme.

  37. John Elliott says:

    I think that the inevitability of garish HTML may actually help here, since even garish HTML allows semantic markup. If signatures in HTML messages were automatically surrounded with (say) <object classid="signature:"> or <div class="signature"> it would be possible for the receiver to render them differently or vanish them completely using a custom stylesheet. Or you could put <!– — –> before and after them and see which mail clients use SGML-style comment parsing.

    For the advanced school, tag all blocks of quoted text similarly and then introduce folding into the mail client so you can hide or reveal bits of the mess as required.

    I still think Outlook should include the "– " in the plain text versions of the messages, though.

  38. Every year or so I turn on HTML mail for yuks, and then immediately turn it off.  Invariably people who compose HTML mail all seem to think their message is best presented in yellow text over a fuchsia background in either 48 or 4 point Comic Sans.

    Thank Heaven for Mozilla for inventing "View as Plain Text", after years of asking.

  39. Adam says:

    John > Uh, why not just use the <address> element?

  40. John Elliott says:

    Adam: Because <address> has traditionally rendered in italic. Microsoft would either have to stop it doing that (resulting in proctological lawyers from people who were already using <address> in their signature and suddenly aren’t getting italics any more) or keep the behaviour (resulting in proctological lawyers from people whose signatures weren’t rendering in italic before).

  41. Dean Harding says:

    RFC1036 is an NNTP standard. Some of the conventions from the usenet world moved over to email (at least in UNIX-land) but saying that RFC1036 means "– " is "standard" for email clients is like saying seatbelts are standard on push bikes because they’re required in cars…

  42. Igor says:

    You can’t expect managers and company lawyers

    everywhere to squeeze the company logo,

    telephone and fax numbers, e-mail and

    street addresses and legal disclaimers

    in four lines.

    Well they could do it if they wrote it as

    hex representation of compressed text :)

    I also think that emails should not have signatures. If you need your personal details sent out with each email, then attach vcard instead of wasting message space with several lines of text.

    Even that is an overkill if you ask me. I really don’t need your address and phone in each message you send me. If you are important enough I will already have your details in my address book.

    Signatures are so old fashioned.

  43. Don’t forget to ask your question.

  44. A corollary to "don’t forget to ask your question".

Comments are closed.