By Tobias van Schneider Published November 26, 2016
While I don’t like to consider myself a busy person, I do receive an average of 150 emails a day. And I often have trouble catching up with everyone and getting my work done too.
I pride myself on answering every email I receive as long as it’s not a mass email, but most people don't work this way. They have other things to do and more pressing emails to answer. If you want to email a busy person and get a response, you'd better write a good email. And after sending and receiving thousands of emails over the years, I've learned what works and what doesn't.
№1. Do use the elevator pitch
Whatever you’re writing about, begin your email with a short summary explaining what this email is about. Don’t do the “How are you, I’m fine whatever” bullshit small talk. I know it’s hard because we don’t want to sound rude, but it’s more rude to steal someone's time with just throwing words around. Write a clear action-oriented intro; if you need to add details they should be optional to read.
Try to not talk too much about yourself . Just add a link to your bio online if you want to provide some extra credibility, which does help a lot.
№2. Do say what you want
Write what you want upfront, then go into details if needed. If you're writing a friend this rule might not apply, and you might feel more polite leading with some irrelevant small talk — that’s great, but it doesn’t work here.
Be friendly and polite but get to the point and say exactly what you want from your reader. If you don’t actually want anything, just put FYI in the subject line but don’t expect a reply.
№3. Don’t try to score on the first date
There are a few goals you might want to achieve when sending an email. You’re either trying to establish a connection or get something specific. While I strongly encourage getting to the point and saying what you want upfront, it’s important to know that there’s a fine balance and always two sides of the coin.
Trying to score on the first date is dangerous — it can ruin the whole relationship immediately. If you want something, first tell me WHAT and then tell me WHY this is beneficial for both of us. This of course depends on your specific situation and relationship with the reader, but trying too hard on the first date is not the same as saying what you want up front. Busy people are usually willing to help without getting anything in return, but they do expect to know WHY they should make the effort.
№4. Do format your email
Don’t send a wall of text. Use breaks and format your email properly so it’s easy to digest. Most emails that don’t get a reply are horribly formatted and a pain to read. Chances are high you won’t get a reply to an email that is not formatted at all.
№5. Do use numbers
Every time I reply to emails I take them apart and give key sections numbers, as I do in this article. It takes me a lot of time but helps the recipient digest and get back to me in the same fashion, which then saves me time in return. With each number I give clear action steps. If you send me numbers back, I can easily reply to 1,2,3 and boom – done!
This is one of the most important tricks to get email done for me. Don’t make me format YOUR emails, just so I can reply to them. The easier you can make it for me, the higher the chances I'll reply with exactly what you need.
I don’t think email sucks, but the way we write them does.
№6. Don't ask if I got it. Send it again.
If you haven’t received a reply in more than a week, copy the same email and send it again. Don’t add more things to it or ask me if I got the email, or why I didn’t reply. Just send the same email again. Every time someone does this I’m very thankful because it either serves as reminder or points me to a message I may have overlooked.
It’s not rude to send exactly the same email again (you might even optimize the intro or subject line) , but it is rude to reply to your own email asking your recipient why they haven’t replied. It's not only passive aggressive, but it requires more of their time as they dig through your email history for context. Save time and send the same email again.
№7. Don’t send NDAs
Do not send mysterious emails with NDAs attached about this new awesome cutting edge thing you’re working on but can’t talk about. There is just nothing actionable anyone can do here. Remember, busy people are not sitting bored at home waiting for random paperwork to sign. If it’s a really important project, there are other ways to get the message through.
№8. Don't ask if you can ask questions
Don't email someone asking if you can “pick their brain” and ask them even more questions. How do expect them to respond? Send questions right away if you want answers (and use numbers, see Nr. 5).
If you plan to ask 10 questions but know they might be overwhelmed, send five right away and the other five after they reply. It’s important to get to the point, but at the same time not overwhelm the person on the other end.
№9. Don't write bullshit office jargon
If you write something like “holistic high level overview of potential synergies using cutting edge technologies” my brain is already dead before I can hit the reply button.
№10. Do use a GIF & be funny
You can’t believe how much a funny GIF helps. Make your reader smile. Time we enjoy wasting is not wasted.
One of my favorites.
These are my learnings and how I try to write my own emails, especially to someone I know is busy (and isn't that everyone?). Put a little effort into your email and you'll encourage your reader to do the same. The known problems we face with emails are because of the way they’re written, not because of the technology.
Want to share your email secrets with me? Please do @vanschneider. Or, you know, email me.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the founder of DESK, nice to meet you!