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How to get a busy person to respond to your email

5 rules for good email etiquette 

How to get a busy person to respond to your email

5 rules for good email etiquette 


Some days I get hundreds of emails a day. It really sucks.

The worst part is that most of the emails are important and I physically can’t respond to all of them.

They might be emails from students of One Month Rails who are frustrated — I want to help them out. Other times they’re from people who have read my posts and want to meet up. Or they’re just from friends.

My personal policy is to read every single email I get. That means every day I have to set aside at least an hour to go through all my email and decide what urgently needs to be responded to and what doesn’t.

In an effort to help people cut through the noise with their emails, and hopefully free up a little bit of my time, I wanted to share a few tips that I’ve found are helpful when writing to people who are inundated with email.

1) Keep it short

If you can keep an email to less than 2 or 3 sentences, it’s much easier to read it right then. If your email is longer than a paragraph or two, people will often put off reading it and it will probably take you longer to get a response.

Here’s a really long email I got recently (you don’t have to read all of it, just skim it):

Hi Mattan,
My name is (redacted), I am recent graduate originally from California but am currently living in (redacted) and am looking for work. I have a Bachelors Degree in Accounting, but am not having much luck finding work in that field and to be honest with you I am struggling with the idea of being an accountant as a career. I sort of always had that thought in the back of my mind while in school but stuck with it because I think it is a skill set that is often overlooked by young entrepreneurs, which is more of what I see myself as.
Today on the news here they ran a segment stating that multiple companies within the city of (redacted) are looking for coders. I have always been interested in the idea of coding but have very limited experience. The extent of my experience in coding comes from creating some macros in the visual basic editor in Microsoft Excel, which I found to be quite enjoyable.
I checked out the website that was advertised and I think this may be something I want to pursue. I was wondering if you could offer me some advice on where to begin. Here is the website in case you want to check it out: (redacted)
After looking through the minimum requirements I see that I am lacking the following:
- development experience
- familiar with an at least one imperative (C/C++, Java, Javascript, C#, Python, Ruby, etc.) or functional language (Haskell, Scala, F#, Clojure, etc)
- Understand basic control structures and elements of programs like loops, variables, functions, and potentially objects and classes.
First thing that I did after seeing the requirements was type in “how to code” on YouTube and that is how I came across you and your talk “How to Teach Yourself Code”. What I am wondering is if the advice from the video still applies today and if Rails is still the way to go or where you would start if you were in my situation. One extra thing to consider is that my PC is in California and at the moment all I have access to is my chromebook. Will this be sufficient to get started or will I need something with a traditional OS?
Sorry for such a long introductory email, but I hope you get a chance to read this and respond.
Thank-you for the video and talk, I will be diving into more of the details you discussed in the coming days.
Hopefully some of that snow in NY is starting to melt!

Woah — this is way too much work to read. You could take all the info above and boil it down into three simple sentences:

Hi Mattan,
I just saw your “How to Teach Yourself to Code” talk from Internet Week but noticed it was recorded almost two years ago. Does your advice in the video still apply?
If so, can I use a Chromebook or will I need something with a more traditional OS?

That’s better. I know that a lot of the background info is missing, but people tend to think that they need to provide way more info than the reader actually needs.

2) Format for readability and clarity

It’s easier to read emails that are broken down into one or two sentences per paragraph than long paragraphs.

Here’s an example of an unformatted email I got recently:

Hi Mattan,
I took your April skillshare omrails class. It was a great intro class. Currently I’m following your advise by doing the Hartl tutorial. I have a question if you can give me some suggestions. Is there an equivalent to Hartl’s Rails tutorial for iPhone app development? My personal goal is to create a Rails website for my wife’s jewelry business, then an iPhone app to go along with the website idea. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Do you see how it’s really hard to read? You can’t skim it and have to do a lot more work to figure out what he or she is actually saying. Here’s one that would have worked way better:

Hi Mattan,
Thanks for the One Month Rails class! I’m following your advice by doing the Michael Hartl Ruby on Rails Tutorial.
Quick question: Do you know of any classes like the Hartl Tutorial but for iPhone apps?

The second is way easier to read and figure out what exactly the person is asking you. Break your paragraphs down into shorter sentences, separate your call to action, and use bold/italics for emphasis and to draw the readers attention to the important parts.

3) Make it clear what you want me to do

Nothing drives people crazier than an email where someone sends over a lot of information but doesn’t say what they’d like you to do. I often respond to those immediately by asking: What do you want me to do?

Do you want me introduce you to someone? Do you want me read your blog post and give you feedback? Do you want me to respond with whether I’ll be able to attend an event? Be clear and say it explicitly up front.

Here’s a really unclear email I got recently:

I just got done watching your presentation on computer programming I’m 14 and wanted to learn it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Couldyou please help me in any way possible I really want you to respond.

The call to action here is just “help me,” but I really have no idea what that means and how to respond to it. Compare the email above to something more concrete:

Hi Mattan,
I’m 14 and want to learn about programming. What’s the #1 resource you’d recommend?

If you must send a long email with a lot of information, put the call to action up at the top. Something like: “I’m sending this email to see if you can attend the event below. Just respond with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

This also helps the reader decide if they should forward the email to someone else, which they do often if they’re used to delegating tasks.

4) Be reasonable with your request

It’s so easy these days to send off an email in 30 seconds that would take someone over an hour to respond to.

Please don’t tell me to go to your startup’s website and give you feedback. To actually give your product or website a thorough review and analyze it in a way that is useful actually takes a lot of work.

If I can respond to something in less than two minutes, I’ll do it immediately. What do you want feedback on? The business model? The color of your button? The text? Be specific and reasonable.

Here’s an example of one of the bigger tasks people often ask me to do for them:

Hi Mattan,
(redacted) here. You don’t know me, but your post on getting accepted to YC fired me up just now.
Having just submitted a late application to YC myself (as a single non-technical founder) I was curious if you might give me some feedback on my application. It hasn’t been rejected yet. And my company’s been featured in Popular Mechanics (attached), Fox Business (video link) and has 300+ paying customers…so I’d like to believe I have a shot. But getting a YC alum’s opinion would be really eye-opening.
(then they attached their 1000+ word application)

If you want someone’s feedback on something, be concrete and ask a specific question that can be answered in a few minutes.

Please don’t expect the reader to do the work to figure out what you want them to do. I consider that lazy. Don’t ask “What do you think we could do to get more customers?”

On the same note, don’t email someone asking to pick their brain about something.

I was wondering if my cofounder and I could take you to dinner/lunch, we’d love to tell you what we’re working on and pick your brain.

“Brain picking” meetings are extremely exhausting because they don’t have a concrete goal and you spend most of the time trying to figure it out. Usually they’re a sign that the person emailing isn’t really sure what they want, they just want to meet in person.

Here’s my typical response to both of the emails above:

Sorry — I can’t meet up in-person — but I’m happy to help. So email me any question anytime. I’m not good with big general, “Here’s my entire situation — what do you think of it?” kind of questions, but pretty good with specific questions.

In order of priority and amount of work involved, here’s what I usually agree to:

i) Giving short response — “Thank you ☺” or “That means a lot”
ii) Answering a specific question — if I can do it in less than 2 minutes
iii) Getting on a quick Skype / Google hangout / phone call — usually 15 minutes or so
iv) Grabbing a coffee in person — usually 45 minutes

This means that if you ask to meet up for coffee but I think we could do it over Skype, I’ll push for that instead.

5) Show me why I should take the time to help you

Honestly, this sounds harsh but it’s important.

In the past, I tried to meet up with everyone who emailed me.

I agreed to coffees and lunches, listened to a lot of stories and gave a good deal of advice about what I thought they should be doing. Then I’d inevitably be frustrated when people didn’t listen to any of my advice. Or they’d argue with me about why I’m wrong.

Sometimes they’d come back to me a month or two later and just ask me the same questions. It felt like Groundhog’s day.

These days I try to prioritize the people who I think I’m going to be able to help out the most.

The best way to figure that out is to see whether you’ve done something awesome in the past, something that indicates that you’ll be doing awesome things in the future.

I often check people’s LinkedIn profiles through Rapportive when they email me – I’ll see where they’re working, where they went to school, and what their deal is.

For example, I’ve learned that people who are currently working in finance but thinking about “starting their own startup” are almost always a red flag. (No offense to finance itself, I studied finance.)

Going to a good school is a plus. Working at a startup I’ve heard of is a plus. Being a consultant or running a small company is usually a minus.

If you don’t have anything yet in terms of experience, then put together a good looking website (not a deck) that makes it look like you put some real thought into what you’re trying to do.

These are just a few of my thoughts about good email etiquette. What kind of tricks do you use for getting people to respond? What do you hate about when people email you? Post them in the comments.