How to E-Mail a Busy Person & get a Reply

by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared ✍🏼
on my personal blog

While I don’t really like to consider myself as a busy person, I love receiving a good written email.

And with an average of around 150 emails I get a day, I do have troubles catching up with everyone while still trying to get work done at the same time.

I pride myself in answering every single E-Mail I get as long as it’s not a mass E-Mail. I do this since many years, but I learned that this isn’t a scaleable solution.

Here is what I learned — And remember, it’s not about ME answering your E-Mail, it’s about YOU getting what you want by using smart tricks.

№1. Do Use the elevator pitch

Whatever you’re writing about, begin your E-Mail with a short summary explaining what this E-Mail 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 someones time with just throwing around words. 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 add 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. Trust me, busy people appreciate nothing more than this. In case you write a non-busy person this rule might not apply and you begin with some irrelevant small talk trying to be polite — That’s great, but doesn’t work here.

Be friendly and polite but get to the point and say what you want. 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 things you might want to achieve when sending an E-Mail. You’re either trying to establish a connection, or you try to get something specific. While I strongly encourage getting to the point and say 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 is of course a case by case example, but trying too hard on the first date is not the same as saying what you want upfront. Busy people are usually willing to help without getting anything in return, but they do expect some WHY to do the effort.

№4. Do Format your E-Mail

Don’t send a wall of text. Use breaks and format your E-Mail properly so it’s easy to digest. Most E-Mails 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 E-Mail that is not formatted at all.

№5. Do Use Numbers

Every time I reply to E-Mails I take them apart and give key sections of the E-Mail numbers, as I do in this article. It takes me a lot of time but helps the recipient to digest and get back to me in the same fashion which then saves me time in return. With that 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 E-Mail done for me. Don’t make me format YOUR E-Mails, just so I can reply to them. The easier you can make it for me, the higher the chances that I reply with exactly what you’ve been looking for — And isn’t that what you want?

I don’t think E-Mail sucks, but the way we write them does. We need to fix the problem at the source, which means writing better emails.

№6. Don’t ask if I got it, send it again.

I do this too. If you haven’t received a reply in more than a week, copy the same E-Mail and send it again. Don’t add more things to it or ask me if I got the E-Mail or why I didn’t reply. Just send the same E-Mail again. Every time someone does this I’m very thankful because it either serves as reminder, or sends me the E-Mail again I might have overlooked.

It’s not rude to send exactly the same E-Mail again (you might even optimize the intro part or subject line) — But it’s rude to reply on your own E-Mail asking me why I haven’t replied. Why? Because then I need to find the original E-Mail with no context which will delay the reply even further.

PRO TIP: Don’t ask “Why did you not reply?” or “Did you get my email?”. These questions don’t help anyone and only put pressure on the recipient. Just send the same, or slightly modified emails again.

№7. Don’t send NDA’s

Please do not send secretive E-Mails with NDA’s attached about this new awesome cutting-edge thing you’re working on but can’t talk about. There is just nothing actionable we can do here. Remember, busy people are not sitting bored at home waiting for random NDA’s to sign — If it’s a really important project, there are other ways to get the message through.

№8. Don’t ask a question to ask questions

Sending an E-Mail with the question if you can “pick my brain” to ask me even more questions. What do you expect me to reply? Send questions through right away if you want answers (and use numbers, see Nr. 5)

If you plan to ask 10 questions but know I might be overwhelmed, send me 5 right away and the other 5 after I replied. It’s important to get to the point, but at the same time not overwhelm the person on the other end.

№9. Don’t do 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. Everything that makes me smile is a bonus. Time I enjoy wasting, was not wasted.

One of my favorites.

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These are my learnings & how I try to write E-Mails myself as well whenever I approach people who I identify as busy. I believe E-Mail is as great as the people who write them. The known problems we face with e-mails are because of the way they’re written (or written at all), not because of the technology.

Want to share your email secrets with me? Please do @vanschneider

Let’s write better emails!
Tobias


PS: I usually send out these articles via my personal email list right here. You can sign up anytime, I won’t spam, promise.

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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.