Passive vs. Active Questions

When seeking information from busy people via email the little things matter. Quick, minor tip: use a question mark if you’re asking a question. Compare the following cases:

Case A: Do you have any feedback for me on this point?

Case B: I would be interested in hearing your feedback on this point.

The question mark in A will yield a higher response than the passive Case B. Another example I learned when doing sales:

Case A: Will you be in town on Nov 5th for a meeting?

Case B: If you’re in town on Nov 5th, I would love to meet.

Again, I think the question mark yields a higher response. When I receive an email from someone I don’t know, I immediately search for the question mark.

Bottom Line: If you want a response, use question marks. Present active not passive questions!

5 Responses to Passive vs. Active Questions

  1. Sean Dulin says:

    I think you’re right about passive vs. active. Although it’s not only for questions. Active voice sounds much better in business writing or writing in general. “To be” forms of verbs can almost always be eliminated.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    Don’t forget the trick behind Case C, the presumptive close:

    Case A: Do you have any feedback for me on this point?

    Case B: I would be interested in hearing your feedback on this point.

    Case C: What are the three most important items of feedback you have for me?

    Narrowing the focus, bounding the reply, and assuming a response should boost the reply rate even further.

    Here’s another example:

    Case A: Will you be in town on Nov 5th for a meeting?

    Case B: If you’re in town on Nov 5th, I would love to meet.

    Case C: Which works better for getting together on the 5th? 10 AM or lunch?

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    I like it, Chris, though I would note that Case C must be used with caution. Your second example — which time works better? — I find unprofessionally presumptuous in a sales context, and a turn-off.

  4. Dave says:

    Chris’ Case C reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon: “How about never? Does never work for you?”

    Ben, have you actually counted responses or are you just speculating? The plural of anecdote is not “data.” These are the sorts of things that can actually be studied in a controlled experiment, although a quick search on Google Scholar did not turn up any obvious references.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    I have not studied this systematically. Just anecdotes based on my own experience in sales.

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