How to get someone to do what you want by email

Mattan Griffel’s “How to get a busy person to respond to your email” is superb. He shows with examples how people fail at writing emails that are likely to get the desired response. I cannot overstate how common failure is in this domain.

I’ve written his key points in bold (in his words), with my comments:

  1. Keep it short. Like me, Griffel suggests a three-sentence rule. Trust me, you can almost always convey what’s critical in three sentences.*
  2. Format for readability and clarity. Shorter: Use white space, specifically paragraph breaks.
  3. Make it clear what you want me to do. Don’t be vague because you think it’s impolite to ask a busy person to do something. Just come out and ask for what you want. If you can’t get yourself to be brutally specific (but still nice!) you shouldn’t send the email.
  4. Be reasonable with your request. Don’t ask to meet up if a phone call will do. Don’t ask for a phone call if an email will do. But, this is so closely related to …
  5. Show me why I should take the time to help you. Sometimes someone will help you just to be nice. If you’re offering little in return, then you’d better be asking for very little time (per #4). But, let’s face it, a busy person is too busy to provide even that very often. In part this is not because the initial interaction is time consuming, but there is a worry that it will lead to more and larger requests.** It really helps if you demonstrate (either in the email or with prior interaction***) how the relationship will be useful to the requestee. By the way, if you’re asking for a talk (i.e., from the podium) or for considerable expertise (e.g., to serve as an adviser to a project), you should disclose how much you’ll pay. Really! It’s OK to disclose that you can’t pay. My point is not to make the other party guess or ask.

This may all come off as curmudgeonly, but that doesn’t make it more-or-less true. Spreading the truth about this aspect of the world should help more people succeed and make it a better place. Go read Griffel’s post for more.

* This begs a question as to why blog posts, articles, and books are so long. Of course, details are important, but I think most things are too long. I may begin to force myself to summarize every post in three sentences right at the top. Another idea is to include suggested tweet text with every post. Though, really, that ought to be the title.

** Corollary: if the person has helped you, respond with a “thank you” at least and a relevant, clarifying follow-up question at most. Responding with a request for more, especially right away, is not that different from asking for too much initially. In fact, it’s worse. It feels like a bait and switch.

*** E.g., you’ve already helped out before. For instance, once you noticed the individual of whom you’re making a request could benefit from more information in an area and you sent a relevant link or paper that s/he was able to put to use. Yes, this happens!


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