Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

A magic tool for getting answers

Over the last few years I’ve found, without fail, that if I ask someone two things in an email – they will pretty much always answer only one.

I’ve tried using bold font, putting the questions up front, using bullet points and changing my writing style. Nothing seems to work. However simple the two questions or actions are (e.g. Shall we meet on Thursday at 2pm? Can you also send me through the XX document for me to review before this) I will either get sent the document and the 2pm meeting isn’t mentioned, or vice versa.

It has driven me to distraction at times.

However thanks to the fantastic David D’Souza I have found a solution!

David tends to email in numbered lists. There are always at least 3 things in the list (even if one of them is just an observation or something amusing!). There are never more than 6 (in the lists he’s sent me anyway).

So I tried this out.

  1. It made me think very clearly about what the key points/questions/actions were that I was asking.
  2. It structured my email and made it look less like a whole block of text. It broke it up.
  3. People answered each of the numbered bullet points!!!
  4. My frustration levels have dropped and I’m in love with numbered lists.

So thank you David. Sometimes it’s the simple things that change what we do.

If you don’t know David and want to know more, here’s what I’d suggest.

  1. Go and have a read of his blog:
  2. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (both links are on his blog)
  3. Buy a copy of the book of blogs that David edited. It’s less than a cup of coffee and the money goes to charity.
  4. Book to attend the HR Game Changer conference in London (once we get the registration details out) as David will be presenting!
  5. Go and have a cup of tea/coffee and a biscuit because you deserve it.

See how it works? Magic!


13 comments on “A magic tool for getting answers

  1. Shaun Sheldrake
    February 3, 2015

    Hi Angela

    Happy New Year!

    I read this and laughed, realising that earlier this morning I had responded (in detail) to a numbered list I¹d been sent.

    Kind regards Shaun

    Shaun Sheldrake


    Phone: 04 462 4089

    Mobile: 027 671 4000


    Level 16, Vodafone on the Quay

    157 Lambton Quay


    From: hrmanagementbites Reply-To: hrmanagementbites Date: Wednesday, 4 February 2015 11:58 am To: Shaun Sheldrake Subject: [New post] A magic tool for getting answers angelaatkins posted: “Over the last few years I¹ve found, without fail, that if I ask someone two things in an email ­ they will pretty much always answer only one. I¹ve tried using bold font, putting the questions up front, using bullet points and changing my writing style. “

  2. daviddsouza180
    February 3, 2015

    Reblogged this on 101 Half Connected Things and commented:
    And I thought I was just being lazy…

    • angelaatkins
      February 3, 2015

      Hah! Whereas in actual fact you were being brilliant!
      Does make me think of one of my favourites books ever which you might enjoy:

      • daviddsouza180
        February 3, 2015

        I quite often talk to people about the importance of being lazy. Give someone lazy important work and they will find the way to do it that involves least friction. In all honesty I used to structure emails to. my team in bullet points to make sure we didn’t lose anything in updates. That made ticking stuff off quicker so we could spend more time talking about what they needed from me.

    • broc edwards
      February 4, 2015

      David, I’m reminded of a quote:

      “There are only four types of officer. First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm…Second, there are the hard- working, intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered. Third, there are the hard- working, stupid ones. These people are a menace and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody. Finally, there are the intelligent, lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office.”

      Attributed to Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein (though a variation has been attributed to Napoleon)

      • daviddsouza180
        February 4, 2015

        I never realised being workshy meant I was destined for greatness. #lazyhr, where the good stuff happens because the bad stuff is too tiring to bother with.

      • broc edwards
        February 4, 2015

        You kid and I laugh (because it’s funny!), but that’s the Pareto Principle in action – maximum results from minimal effort. Buckminster Fuller referred to it as ephemeralization where technology enables us to do more and more with less and less.

      • daviddsouza180
        February 4, 2015

        I’m all over Pareto, but ephemeralization is new to both me and my phone’s autocorrect

      • broc edwards
        February 4, 2015

        David, my browser spell check doesn’t like it either even though it’s a geeky tech word dating back to at least the 1930s.

  3. angelaatkins
    February 4, 2015

    Thanks Broc – I always knew laziness was underrated. Love that quote! David – I think we may have started a new movement #lazyhr

  4. LearnKotch
    February 4, 2015

    Great solution – can I suggest taking it further or for that matter shorter. It is a known fact that the human brain can only remember / act upon three points at a time (thus why you should not have more that 3 points on a PPT – but that’s another story) – so when sending that email try and limit your numbering to three – this makes it easier for the reader to digest and for that matter action.

    If you have more than three, see if you can prfioritize your top three action items. Alternatively, you can eave the others for a follow up email once they have responded – which if you use this process, they most likely will respond sooner, allowing you to follow up quicker.

    It woks for me..

    Hope this helps.

    • angelaatkins
      February 4, 2015

      Hi Con, lovely to meet you! Thank you – that’s a good point.
      I have found that advanced numbered list users (like David) can cope with more than 3, sometimes even 5 or 6 on the list but 3 does make it succinct and more memorable!

  5. TashHR
    February 5, 2015

    Do you know what’s funny?

    1: This is the ONLY way I have ever structured emails where I have to explain process and when I need stuff answered.

    2: I thought I was just being pedantic by putting everything in lists, but it has always worked for me.

    3: I don’t like what a lot of text looks like in a block. I like the white space lists give.

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