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STRATEGY

7 Tips for Emailing Extraordinarily Busy People

Here's how to break through the noise and get busy people to take action when you email them.

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We all get a lot of email. And we send off scores of them, too. For important emails, we hope for replies or action.

If you do the math on the number of inbound emails you get multiplied by the time it would take to read them all and respond to those that expect a reply, you would be astounded. It is simply unmanageable.

Yet some simple techniques can help massively improve your ability to get people to take action on your important emails. And they will appreciate it, too. 

1. Keep it short and to the point.

Many people ramble in emails. On my most important ones, I spend as much time figuring out what to cut out as I do putting into the writing of it. On email, less is always more. When in doubt, leave it out.

2. State your most important ask up front.

Many people write email without a "call to action" or reason they’re writing the email. Make sure to state yours and if there is no action required, say so upfront, as in "this is for information only -- no action required."

Often emails are complex and require you to list lots of background. If so, it’s still okay to list what your expected action is near the top of the email. For super important emails or key dates people need, I often put these in red and bold. Example: When I send a "save the date" email I often put the event date, location and "reply by" date near the top in red.

3. If there are multiple parts to the email, try to break it up into sections.

When emails get a bit longer due to background info, I often break them up into sections (as I am doing in this post). It’s easier to follow when you have sections as guidelines. It’s also easier for the reader to scan for what they want. If they get your email and see one big wall of long text, often people shrug and move on to the next email (see point 2 again -- if you give an action up front and make it bold, they will get hooked in and at least know what you expect).

4. Write to one person at a time.

This is critical and was the reason I sat down to write this post. I often see people write to many people at once asking for help, as in a CEO writing to a board to say, "Can anybody help me with an intro to Google?" or "Can you please review this list of potential next-round investors and give me your feedback?"

Even if people are well-intentioned, they are less likely to respond to a group email. Any sociologist can tell you that.

As Martin Peacock wrote in the comments section, it’s actually "a thing":

Think about it: If you get an email that says, "Hey, Sarah, I wanted to ask for a small bit of help …" or even "Sarah, I’m hosting an event on Feb 17th and I’d like to ask if you could make it," you feel it’s a personal appeal to you. If you don’t reply, you’re letting down the sender who is seemingly asking you personally, individually and solely.

The minute you send out an email to a group and say, "I was wondering if anybody could help with …," each person thinks that somebody else is going to help. It’s true that some people will come forward but much less so than if you sent to each member individually.

Trust me -- I’ve tried both for years.

The best way to do this is to set up the bulk of your email message as a general message, and create multiple versions of it. You can then add the person's name to the top and I often add a little personal message to each email at the top and/or change any pertinent emails.

Sure, this takes longer than a group email. So for less important emails I still send to the group. But when it’s really important I craft them individually.

I am soon going to start piloting a software application to help me do this. It’s called ToutApp. I met the founder and saw the demo and loved the functionality/approach.

5. Make your subject line matter.

Subject lines matter as much as the text of tweets or headlines. We are a generation of email scanners. We scan our email headlines to figure out which ones to open. After a couple of days, if we missed your email, it’s likely in email purgatory until you remind us we didn’t respond.

So make your headlines matter and get opened more!

I write things like:

  • "super short, time sensitive request"
  • "important intro: company a / company b"
  • "future of TV roundtable on Feb 17th -- almost full. RSVP this week."
  • "quick question -- can you help?"

Or similar. Again, often I don’t care if I have a perfect subject -- I just hit send. But when it’s an important email, the subject line is your life line.

6. Time of day matters.

Don’t send an important email on a Friday afternoon unless it requires immediate action. Often I’ll write emails on the weekend and send them first thing Monday morning. I want to be on top of the stack, not at the bottom of the pile. Most people process email first thing in the morning (although productivity experts say not to!).

I’m told ToutApp will let me send the email early but schedule delivery time.

By the way, when I write blog posts on Sundays, I always Tweet again Monday morning for exactly this reason.

7. Rinse and repeat.

When I was younger I cared when people didn’t respond to my emails. I didn’t get as many and I responded to all.

Over the years, I’ve learned that some people are just high-volume and can’t process 100% of email. The more senior people are the more demands, the busier, etc. The older they are, the more out-of-work responsibilities and therefore they’re not likely up until 2 in the morning responding to emails.

So simply send your email again. I like to hit "reply all" and include them so they see that I had sent it before. My goal is not to make them them feel guilty. That’s silly. If they’re important that’s the last thing I’d want to do.

I simply say something like, "I know how busy you are. I hope you don’t mind but wanted to resend & put at the top of your inbox" and then I repeat my call to action.

On the third send (after, of course, leaving enough time to not seem like a stalker/pest) I might say, “I hate to keep sending and I really hate to be a nag. Was hoping for just 2 minutes of your time by next Wed to … .”

This story originally appeared on the blog Both Sides of the Table.

IMAGE: Wiertz Sébastien / Flickr.com
Last updated: Aug 26, 2013

MARK SUSTER is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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