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Email Etiquette: How to Ask People for Things and Actually Get a Response

Jocelyn Glei
Jocelyn Glei / October 4, 2016

If writing a letter a hundred years ago was the equivalent of sitting down with someone in a quiet room and talking face-to-face, writing an email today is like yelling at someone across a noisy intersection while they’re rushing to an appointment.

Everyone is overloaded and overbusy. We exist in a state of continuous partial attention as we shift nimbly back and forth between email, text messages, social media, and the web. The email you send isn’t just competing with other email for someone’s attention; it’s competing with everything.

Odds are, your email will be read on a phone, as are over 50 percent of emails. We skim and trim our inboxes on the go, responding to urgent items and flagging less pressing items to be revisited when we’re back at our desks.

That means your email will most likely be digested in a quick glance while the receiver is on their phone, flitting back and forth between other tasks. At best your correspondence will get a quick flash of their attention. If it’s deemed compelling in that passing glance, they will probably return to it later. Make a poor first impression, though, and it’s game over before you even get started.

Our information-addled brains demand a new approach to email. When everyone is busy, being respectful of their time—by taking up as little of it as possible—is a key way to get people to pay attention. When composing email, this means being clear, concise, and actionable. You can achieve this with a few simple strategies:

1. Lead with the ask.

"Think about what will appear in the two-line message preview the recipient will see as she scrolls through her inbox: Will it capture her attention?"

Without being abrupt or pushy, it’s important to put your ask at the top of your email—within the first sentence or two if possible. The goal is to get the reader’s attention and have them understand the action that’s being requested immediately. If you put a lot of rigmarole before your ask, an impatient reader might never get to it.

For example, let’s say you’re reaching out to the CEO of a startup you admire to invite her to speak at a conference. You could position the ask like so:

Hi Catherine—This is Mark Holland. I run the popular Firestarters conference, which draws over 5,000 entrepreneurs to the Staples Center in LA each year. I’m writing to extend an invitation for you to speak at our event on March 5th, 2016.

Catherine may not know what the hell the Firestarters conference is, but she does know something important: What this email is about (a speaking invitation). She also now knows the date and location of the event and that it has fairly impressive attendance numbers. Now that the ask is clear and her interest is piqued, she's more likely to read Mark's further details, where he can include backstory on the event and more impressive stats to make his case even stronger.

In a short-attention span world, it’s best to get right to the point immediately and do your explaining later. Think about what will appear in the two-line message preview the recipient sees while scrolling through their inbox: Will it capture their attention?

2. Establish your credibility.

Why should I care? is the tacit question hovering in most people’s minds as they open an email, especially if it’s from someone they don’t know. This is why establishing your credibility early on in the message is crucial. Tell your reader why you are different, why you are accomplished, or why they should pay attention to you.

For instance, if you’re cold-emailing a brand to request a sponsorship, you might establish your credibility by sharing data points about your audience and the awards you’ve won.

Hi Tom—I’m Tracy Black, the editor of Feed Daily, a Webby award–winning website with over 2 million visitors a month. I’m putting together a new article series that targets ambitious young creatives, and I wanted to see if you might be interested in sponsoring it?

If you’re emailing someone you do know—getting in touch with a coworker about an urgent task, for example—you might legitimize your request by indicating that you are under pressure from the boss (assuming that’s true).

Hi Tom—I’m following up to see if you were able to implement the new email signup feature? The CEO wants to see this wrapped up by the end of the week.

Data points and brute authority aren’t your only options, of course. You can also establish credibility by being a keen observer of the person you are contacting. You could tell them how long you’ve followed their work, what you enjoyed about the last blog post they wrote, or how their product might be improved—with tact of course! As long as it’s not fawning, most people appreciate being noticed, and it makes them notice you back.

3. Make the way forward clear.

Maze
Effective emails always make the way forward clear.

I frequently receive emails from people who are interested in some sort of knowledge exchange but never clarify how they would like for me to take action. Do they want to have a coffee? Do they want to do a phone call? It’s unclear, which means that instead of saying, "Yes!" I have to respond by asking them what they’re asking me for in the first place—or, more likely, not respond at all.

You’re much more likely to get a response from someone if it’s clear what the next step is. That makes it easy for the recipient to say yes to your request.

Let’s say you’re reaching out to a film director you admire for advice. Don’t just email them with:

I’ve been a fan of your work for years, and I’d love to pick your brain. What do you say?

Instead, propose something specific:

I’m a longtime admirer of your work and have the greatest respect for your filmmaking expertise. I would love to ask you a few questions about how you financed your first film. Would you be game for a 15–20 minute phone call next week? My schedule is wide open all day Thursday and Friday if you have availability then. I promise to keep it brief.

The second example clarifies the subject matter at hand and the fact that you just want to do a brief phone call. This means that the recipient knows the time commitment will be minimal and—because you’ve already proposed a calendar date—they know that the email thread can be closed quickly and efficiently. In other words, you’ve respected their time, and they now know that dealing with you won’t be another headache they don’t need.

4. If you’re asking a question, propose a solution.

Email is not a good venue for debate. Thus, messages that offer nothing but a question like "What do you think about X?" are generally ineffectual. Busy people don’t want to figure out your problems for you, and they don’t want to write a lengthy response. They want to say yes or no and then move on to the next thing. So if you want to get a response—and to get your way—don’t just pose questions: Propose solutions.

Let’s imagine you’re emailing your boss to ask if you can attend a conference. You could write:

Hi Tina—I noticed that people are already booking hotels for the SXSW conference next year. I’d like to go. What do you think?

Or, you could write,

Hi Tina—I’ve been thinking about ways to enrich my work skill set, and it looks like there are some speakers and workshops at SXSW next year that would be very helpful. I can also put together a report to share what I’ve learned with the team after I return. I’ve estimated the cost, and it looks like a ticket, hotel, and airfare would run the company about $2,500. Do you think the company could sponsor me to attend?

The first message is short but lazy and will require numerous back-and-forth messages to clarify what’s really at stake. The second email is longer but includes everything necessary for the conversation to be resolved immediately. The writer has done her homework, the costs and benefits are clear, and it’s easy for the boss to just say yes. Being proactive in your communications takes more work upfront, but it pays huge dividends in the long run.

5. Be scannable.

Use bullets, numbers, and/or bolding to make your email skimmable and digestible, emphasizing the key points. If you scoff at this type of spoon-feeding of information, go ahead and get over it. Emails are about getting results, not testing your recipient’s reading comprehension. Here’s an example of how you might recap next steps after a client meeting.

Hi Sharon—Great call yesterday! I’m excited about next steps. Here’s a recap of what we discussed doing in the coming week to meet our deadline:
Action Items for Sharon & Team:
- Approve revised mockups (Due: Mon 4/9)
- Provide final copy for banners (Due: Wed 4/11)
- Supply hi-res photography (Due: Wed 4/11)

Because this email requires the client to do something, you want the action items to pop out of the email—thus the bold text—and be easily digested—thus the bullets. Due dates are also offset in parentheses so they’re easy to see.

Remember: if you really want to get things done, success depends upon making it easy for your reader to quickly process the email and understand the salient points.

6. Give them a deadline.

Is your email urgent? Does it need a response now? In two days? In two weeks? It may surprise you to learn that busy people love deadlines because they help prioritize exactly when things need to get done. In fact, I’ve found that emails that have no timetable are more likely to get ignored. You certainly don’t want to be imperious or overly demanding, but do give your reader some polite context for timing.

If you’re emailing a close colleague about an urgent task, you can be pretty straightforward about timing:

For the project to stay on schedule, I’ll need a response from you in the next 24 hours if possible.

If you’re extending an invitation to someone you haven’t met, you might politely share your follow-up timeline:

I’m sure you’re busy and will want time to mull this opportunity over. I’ll follow up in two weeks if I haven’t heard from you.

Or say you want to allow your boss or a client to weigh in on a decision but need to move forward if they don’t respond in time:

If I don’t hear back from you by this Friday, Aug 17th, I’ll go ahead and proceed with the solution I’ve proposed above.

Including a deadline is like dropping an anchor: It fixes your request in space and time, making it more likely to get noticed and get done.

7. Write your subject lines like headlines.

Oscar Wilde
Imagine you are the Oscar Wilde of email. Be pithy.

For your email to be read, it has to be opened. Your goal should be to compose a subject line that is clear and, ideally, provocative. It’s much like writing a compelling headline for an article or blog post that you want people to click on.

Let’s say you’re a successful musician reaching out to a designer about doing the cover for your new record. You have a decent-sized audience, so you expect the album to perform well. You could use:

Subject: Design Gig

It’s accurate, but it lacks specificity and makes your email sound like a humdrum offer. Alternatively, you could use:

Subject: Cover design for high-profile album release?

This is still accurate, but it piques curiosity by clarifying what exactly the project is and promising good exposure. Especially when you’re writing an "ask" email to someone you’ve never met before, the subject line functions like a first impression. And you only get one chance to make a first impression.

8. Edit your messages ruthlessly.

After you’ve drafted your email, re-examine it with an unsympathetic eye and take out anything unnecessary. Being clear and concise from the get-go saves time for everyone. It takes more time to craft a tight and to-the-point email, but that edited email will also be much more likely to get a response.

9. Preview all messages on your phone.

As mentioned earlier, your email message is most likely going to be opened first on a phone. Therefore, it’s wise to understand what your message will look like in mobile email apps. What seems digestible on a massive desktop screen often looks like War and Peace on a mobile phone. Preview your message on the small screen, and if it still looks way too long, ruthlessly edit it again. If your message gives the impression of being overwhelming, it’s probably going to get ignored.


If you think this all sounds like a lot of work for a little old email, think about it this way: If you take the time to consider your audience and tailor your message to their attention span up front, your emails will be more effective, you will be more likely to get what you want, and you will ultimately have to spend less time on email. Isn’t that what everybody wants?

All illustrations by artist Tomba Lobos from the book Unsubscribe.

Photo of Brian Harris

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