Email: It finds its way into every corner of our lives. There’s personal email. There’s your school email. There are all the messages that come through to your second personal email account (the one you created for every online store you bought something from once that now feels the need to make contact daily). There’s work email. More work email. Somehow even more work email.
With the rise of remote work stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, email has taken over even further—especially in your professional life. Even if your team defaults to Slack for quick convos, you’re still going to be sending a lot of requests via email. From asking someone in accounting to run a report for you to pleading with someone in graphic design to help you with the visuals for a proposal, you probably send a lot of emails asking for favors.
But when you’re not making your request in person, it becomes all too easy for the recipient to ignore your message until it disappears into inbox oblivion—or to simply delete it.
So when you need a favor, how do you write an email that will get a response? The short answer is: carefully.
Why ask for help via email?
Requesting someone’s assistance over email:
- Allows you to think through your message as you write it so that you’re clear about what you want to ask, why you’re asking, and how you might address questions or concerns that arise from the request.
- Puts all of the important details in one place that’s easy to refer back to.
- Gives the recipient the time and space to respond to your ask in a thoughtful way and doesn’t make them feel put on the spot.
- Makes it easier to communicate with those who might not be working in the same place or at the same time as you—perhaps because they’re in different timezones or one or both of you don’t keep a traditional 9-to-5 workday.
How to ask for help via email
Follow these steps to ask for assistance in an email:
1. Ask yourself if email is the right way to go.
Many requests are completely appropriate to send by email. But before you go ahead and start drafting, ask yourself if a conversation (either in-person, over the phone, or in a video call) would be more beneficial. In email, there’s no tone of voice or emotion that happens naturally in a conversation. Sometimes, sitting across from a person and letting them see your genuine care, your smile, or your dismay—you know, the things that make you human—can sell your message far better than the most thoughtfully crafted email. A conversation might also make it easier for you both to ask questions and ensure you’re on the same page.
2. Use the subject line to your advantage.
OK, now it’s time to get writing. First things first: The subject line is there for a reason. Use it to clearly let the recipient know why you just added another email to their inbox, and you’ll immediately up the chances that they’ll actually open it.
A vague subject line (like “Have a question”) isn’t helpful and can be irritating—and you don’t want someone to open your email in an irritated state of mind when you need something. Instead, be respectful of your recipient’s time, and make it super easy for them to glean why you sent the communication.
“Need your review: Adjustments to program brochure.”
3. Greet your reader before making demands.
I frequently get emails from students who immediately launch into a request, demand, or question without bothering to first say, “Good morning,” or even simply, “Hi.” You (hopefully) wouldn’t barge into someone’s office and start rattling off demands, so don’t do that by email, either.
You don’t have to launch into a long spiel of pleasantries, but it doesn’t hurt to drop in something personal before launching into your request, such as:
“Hi Randi! How was the 10K this weekend? I thought of you on Saturday and sent good vibes your way.”
“Good morning, Jacob. How was your weekend? It was great gardening weather—I hope you were able to make the most of it!”
These greetings are short and simple, but they demonstrate a nice level of genuine interest in the recipients. Remember what I said earlier about not wanting your reader to be irritated when opening your email? It’s hard to feel annoyed with someone who makes a comment or asks a question about something that’s important to you.
4. Introduce yourself (if needed).
If you’re asking for help from someone you don’t know, you also need to use the opening lines of your email to introduce yourself. Depending on the context, you may be able to keep it simple by stating your name and position or your name and why you’re emailing. For example:
“I’m Kavi, the B2B marketing manager at HiTech Co.”
“I’m the new sales development rep working under Paula.”
If more context is needed, check out these networking email templates for some more guidance.
5. Be clear about what you’re asking for.
If your request is urgent, it can be tempting to fire off an email in a hurry with text-like abbreviations, hastily written sentences, and rambling paragraphs devoid of any meaningful punctuation. If you find yourself writing a message that looks like this, stop. Take a deep breath. When asking for assistance, the last thing you want to do is make it difficult for someone to understand what you want. If your recipient can’t make sense of your email, you’ve just hurt your chances of getting the help you need.
Instead, after your greeting, explicitly state what it is you’re asking for and make it as easy to understand as possible. Write complete sentences. Break long paragraphs up into smaller paragraphs. Use commas appropriately. And you can even work in bullets or bolded text to make it easier to skim.
6. Don’t write a novel.
Yes, in most cases you can make your request in just a few sentences, rather than several paragraphs
If you’re making a more complex request, write your first draft, then consider if you can cut any material to make it easier to read. Then, take a look at the final product and ask yourself if the request is clear or if it would be addressed more efficiently by phone or in person.
A succinct request might look like this:
I wanted to follow up with you about the steering committee. I really need a chairperson for the subcommittee who will handle the strategic planning sessions. With your background in strategic planning and strong relationships around the office, I think you’re the ideal person to fill this role. Would you be interested?”
See? Polished but to the point. Instead of writing paragraphs about the reasons why the reader would be the ideal candidate, the author provided a clear and concise explanation of what they want.
7. Close professionally and politely—with a clear call to action.
Once you’ve made your request, end by saying what you’d like the reader to do first (or next). For example, you might conclude with something along the lines of:
“Could we set up a meeting this week to discuss it further?”
“Please let me know if you can take this on by EOD Thursday.”
“Please send me an outline of the proposal by Friday, June 12th.”
Then finish up with an appropriate sign-off for the situation and your name.
Example request emails
Want to see what this advice looks like in action? Check out these examples.
Example request email to a coworker
If you’re asking someone you already know well for help, you might send an email like this:
Hope you’re doing well after that Succession finale last night! (Let me know if you need to vent to someone because I do.)
I’m working on the sales deck for CoCo Inc and I was wondering if you might have time to take a quick look? You’ve sold to so many similar clients, I’d love to get your take on the package I’ve put together and how I’m presenting it.
I’m attaching the deck here—would you be able to let me know your thoughts by Thursday?
Example request email to someone you don’t know
What if you’re reaching out to someone you don’t know to ask for an informational interview? You could write something along the lines of:
My name is Naomi, and I’m a software engineer who works in Atlanta and a fellow UGA alum. I’m reaching out because I’ve seen your LinkedIn posts about how you made the transition from engineering to UX design, and I’m looking to make this transition myself. I’d love to learn more about how you made the switch and what helped you pull it off so successfully. Could we set up some time to chat (in person or over Zoom)? I’m sure you’re busy, so even 20 minutes would be appreciated.
Thanks so much,
So there you go. Keep your request clear, concise, and friendly—and you’ll have a much better chance of getting the assistance you need.
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.