How to make sure your emails don’t go unread

Colleen Trolove | September 19, 2016

In a few days, my uncle would finish painting my half-painted house. I wrote him an intricate email explaining where he’d find the hidden key, where I’d stored the paint, which colours were for which areas, and how many coats of paint had been applied in some places. I smugly added informative headings, checked the formatting, felt pleased with myself, and hit ‘send’. I thought that was the end of it.

Image of paint pots

Paint pots. Image by Gideon / CC BY 2.0

I was surprised when he phoned me on the first day. He said, ‘Okay, Colleen, I’m here. Where’s the key?’ Cue the crushing feeling — he hadn’t read my email. Bother!

I should have called him in the first place. It would have saved a lot of time and effort.

I’d forgotten that a lot of people don’t like reading. A lot find it difficult. Some can’t.

Adult literacy in New Zealand isn’t what you might expect

According to a 2006 international study, 14 percent of us can’t read much at all. Thirty percent can manage only simple printed material (without pleasure — you won’t find these people reading novels in their spare time).

A decent 39.5 percent of Kiwis can cope with a range of printed material found in daily life and at work. These people might enjoy reading but tend to not understand as much as they think they do (they don’t score brilliantly in comprehension tests). Only 16.5 percent of us like reading, understand pretty much everything we read, and can make high-level inferences as we read.

Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey: Overview and International Comparisons (PDF, 1.9 MB)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the 56 percent who likes reading. That leaves 44 percent of people, my uncle included, who would prefer you not to flick them an email.

How do you make sure your emails don’t go unread?

  1. Phone.
  2. Ask if the person wants information over the phone or by email.
  3. Do what they want!

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.