Reminders sent by email are not only unpleasant but often counterproductive. I must admit that sometimes they actually make me less willing to do what is asked for. Therefore e-mail reminders should be used sparingly when the person who is being reminded:
(a) has promised or is obliged to do something;
(b) has likely forgotten this commitment; and
(c) will face disagreeable consequences if this commitment is ignored.
Let me illustrate these points by some examples from real-life emails I have received:
From: Student To: Professor Subject: Kind reminder Dear Professor Let me remind you that last week I asked you to write me a recommendation letter ….
Problem: nothing has been promised so a reminder is not appropriate.
Solution: If the student badly wants his recommendation he should switch from the ‘reminder’ mode to the ‘plea’ mode. Explain why it is so important. You may refer to the earlier request but do not repeat it – most likely the professor has read it and decided not to respond. Often teachers do not want to write recommendation letters when they do not find the student particularly outstanding. They ignore such requests because they do not want to disappoint the student explaining this. That is why you may want to turn to another teacher or perhaps clarify that you do not necessarily need an all-shine letter.
From: Colleague X To: Colleague Y Subject: Fw: last week’s email Dear X This is a gentle reminder about the e-mail below. Regards, Y
Problem: Nothing has been promised or forgotten. This reminder is insulting: apparently Colleague X does not believe that Colleague Y reads her emails.
Solution: If you really need to figure out what happened to your email make a phone call or visit your colleague.
From: Administrator To: Teacher Y Subject: Kind Reminder - Exam Grades Date: Wednesday Dear Y To follow up on Monday’s message, this is a reminder that the exam grades are due on Friday. Sincerely, Administrator
Problem: Although there is a clear obligation to submit the grades, there is no evidence that Teacher Y has forgotten what was asked on Monday. Such reminders are more justified when sent to large groups of people (which normally include forgetful personalities), but when sent to a single person they directly imply that this person can’t keep track of his commitments and thus may be viewed as insulting.
Solution: If the Administrator is genuinely worried that Teacher Y may not submit grades on time, perhaps she could write “Dear Y, Is there anything I can do to help you with marking the exams by Friday?”
From: Director To: Staff Subject: Reminder: lunch seminar
Problem: All three conditions are not met. Staff is not obliged to go to lunch seminars. If the seminar was advertised in advanced there is no evidence that anyone has forgotten it. Finally, nothing serious happens if those who are not interested do not show up.
Solution: The expectation to attend the seminars should be clear and not contingent on reminders. Their times and topics should be announced in good time to help staff make up their minds on whether these are worth attending.
Finally, here are five hints which could make reminders more acceptable.
- When making a request ask whether the person would need a reminder. It is not unlikely that a busy professor might say “Yeah, sure, I’d love to come to your presentation, remind me one day before and I’ll see whether I have time”. Then your reminder will be part of an agreement and be well received. Or else, the professor may respond “Oh, no, I use OmniFocus and don’t forget about my commitments” which may stimulate an interesting discussion about task management software.
- Do not use words like “gentle”, “friendly”, and “kind”. They don’t make reminders taste better but you may come across as a hypocrite.
- Do not send reminders as High Priority or follow the word Reminder with one or several exclamation signs. I am especially surprised when the reminder is both “gentle” and “High priority”.
- Consider a personal meeting or a phone call as an alternative to an email reminder. In most situations you will be able to remind without being perceived as intrusive or importunate as may happen in case of email reminders.
- Do not forward the original message you are reminding about with the same subject. Most Inboxes (mine inclusive) are organized by conversation threads in reverse chronological order. When you send a message with the same subject the whole thread is moved towards the top of the Inbox (i.e. towards more recent emails). However, many people who systematically process their email start with older messages, i.e. from the bottom of the Inbox. Thus, by sending a reminder as a forward of an older message with the same subject you are shifting it down in the processing cue and thus inviting later rather than earlier response.
Another incorrect usage of “reminder” is when the information is being delivered for the first time. If you are telling me something that you never told me before it’s not a “reminder”.
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