Respond to Requests with 100% Accuracy

Guidelines for this business writing best practice

  1. Identify the requester’s expectations in the key terms.
  2. Write the notes for your response below the person’s key terms.
  3. Use questions in the request as your guide to select information and write the response.
  4. If the reader needs to solve a problem or deal with a situation, use the problem or situation key terms in the request as your guide.
  5. If you aren’t clear about what the requester wants, clarify it.
  6. Respond to all e‑mail messages promptly.

Your document responding to a request must provide everything the requester wants, under the conditions the requester requires. You may be responding to a request you receive in an email, writing a proposal in response to an RFP (request for proposal), or completing a standard activity the company or agency requires periodically, such as a periodic audit. In these cases, the readers require a response that satisfies their expectations and is delivered under the conditions they specify.

Identify the requester’s expectations in the key terms

When you receive the person’s request, identify the key terms in the request that specify this person’s expectations:

  1. WHAT the reader wants from you
  2. CONDITIONS the reader expects you to adhere to

Record the key terms the requester wrote, in the order in which the requester wrote them. Write them in a column using a new line for each request key term.

Example

You receive this request in an e‑mail:

Give me a brief report on how the attendance has been at the trainings you’ve done since August. I need to know especially whether the salespeople have been able to make it to the sessions. Get it to me by Friday afternoon.

Write the key terms the requester used to describe what she WANTS at the beginning of your document and assign each to be a Level 1 topic.

1 – how the attendance has been at the trainings since August1 – whether salespeople have been to the sessions

Write the requester’s CONDITION key terms with a blank line between each:

brief
by Friday afternoon
When you write your response, include the requester’s key terms for what she wants, exactly as they appear in the request. That ensures that you are providing everything the requester asked for because her words guide your response. This is the introduction to the report responding to the request:
This report explains the following:

1. How the attendance has been at the trainings we’ve done since August

2. Whether the salespeople have been able to make it to the sessions

1. How the attendance has been at the trainings we’ve done since August

We have had 92 percent of all employees attending the trainings we’ve done since August. [The report continues here.]

After you have written the report, reexamine the condition key terms that are on the first page to be sure you are satisfying the requester’s conditions. Then delete them for the final draft.

Write the notes for your response below the person’s request key terms

Each of the person’s request key terms is a heading for your response. Below the heading, write the key terms for a complete response that provides everything the person asked for, to the level of detail the person needs. Number the key terms to show the levels.

Critical tests:

Evaluate the information by answering these critical questions:

  1. Have I provided all the information this reader requested and needs? Consider this person’s knowledge of the subject, education, technical knowledge, need for concreteness, and need for depth. Add any information this reader expects or needs.
  2. Do I have any information this reader has not requested or does not need? Delete any unnecessary information. Include only the information the person asked for and needs.

Use questions in the request as your guide

If you are answering questions contained in an e‑mail, RFP, audit guidelines, or other source of questions, use the words in the questions or guidelines for the request key terms. Usually, begin your response by repeating the question or guideline. If you do not repeat the entire question or guideline, at least repeat the key term.

Example

The writer receives this request:

Frieda, I’m finishing the final report on the project and have some questions. How many hours were spent completing the project design? Did you include travel costs in the final costs? I think we were below budget. Is that true?

Jim

The first question in the request is, “How many hours were spent completing the project design?” The request key term is “hours spent completing the project design.”

In the following response, the writer includes the question, verbatim, and uses the key term in the response. The bolding would be in an e‑mail if the e‑mail supported it:

Hello Jim,

You asked how many hours we spent completing the project design, whether I included travel costs in the final costs, and whether we were below budget. My answers follow.

Question 1: How many hours were spent completing the project design?

Answer: We spent 74 hours completing the project design.

The requester’s first question appears exactly as it was in the request. The key term from the question is in the opening, the question, and the answer. In explicit business writing, you must be so clear you cannot be misunderstood, so you write in ways that look and feel different from the old business writing that grew out of journalism and creative writing. It looks different, but to be consistently explicit, business writing must look this way.

If the reader needs to solve a problem or deal with a situation, use the problem or situation key terms in the request as your guide

If you must respond to a problem or situation the requester describes, write the requester’s problem or situation key terms on the first page before you respond. When you write, restate the problem or situation using the key terms. Before you send the document, reexamine the key terms to make sure you’ve responded to the problem or situation.

Example

This is the request the business writer receives. The problem key terms are bolded just for this illustration:

Hello Eric,

I need some help with the program. I was on the house description screen putting in the information for the client’s house and it asked for number of baths and it didn’t work. The program wouldn’t save it. I put in 2.5 baths and it kept changing it to 3 baths.

Lisa

In your response, summarize the problem before explaining the solution. That lets the reader know you understand the problem, and it helps you provide a solution for the real problem.

This is the writer’s response to the e‑mail.

Hello Lisa,

I’ll help you with the problem. You wrote that you were on the house description screen putting in the information for the client’s house. You put in 2.5 baths and saved it. Then, when you looked at the “Baths” field, it contained 3 baths, not 2.5 baths.

The problem is that the program . . . [continues here]

In the best practices that create clear business writing, the writer must ensure that the reader understands the context and the content of the writing. State the problem at the beginning so the reader can respond if you misunderstood. Frustrating miscommunication can occur when the writer provides an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. More damage sometimes results when the reader tries to apply the wrong solution and it makes the real problem worse.

Describing the problem at the beginning also reminds the reader about the issue that prompted your response. The reader may have forgotten the detail.

There is another benefit to both you and the reader when you explain the issue at the beginning of the document. Writing the explanation takes you only a few seconds because you’re focusing on it at the time. However, you may save the reader a few minutes of having to locate and read the request to remember what was in it. When others consistently write the background of documents they send to you, they will save you the few minutes it would take you to remember that you’re receiving a document responding to a request you’ve forgotten.

If you aren’t clear about what the requester wants, clarify it

If you aren’t clear about what the requester wants, contact the requester to find out. Don’t guess. Mistaken guesses frustrate requesters, result in back-and-forth e‑mail messages that clog in-boxes, and waste your time in rewriting. Your request for clarification also lets the writer know the message wasn’t explicit. Writers need to hear from readers about their writing. Hopefully, in a corporate climate that rewards and expects quality writing, the writer will make an effort to be clearer next time.

Respond to all e‑mail messages promptly

One of the conditions you should satisfy for all e‑mail, whether the writer specifies it or not, is responding promptly. We should respond to e‑mail as we do to phone calls, not as we do to letters.

  1. Always respond to e‑mail messages within an hour or two of receiving them when you are in the office, but no later than four hours. If you are out, have someone respond for you, or create an autoresponder explaining that you’re out for the day and when you will respond.
  2. Leave no e‑mail message unanswered at the end of the business day when possible, but certainly not by the end of the morning the next day. At least respond to say you will need more time to respond and will do so in a few hours or the next day.
  3. Respond to every e‑mail message. Never put a message into the “later” pile that is really a trash can.
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