Email: It finds its way into every corner of our lives. Personal email. Work email. School email. Second personal email (for spam). The business world is the preeminent email driver, generating more than 108 billion emails a day.
With email dominating your conversations in all aspects of your life—especially your professional life—you’re going to be sending lots of requests every day. From asking someone in accounting to run a report for you to pleading with someone else in graphic design to help you format a proposal, you probably send a lot of emails asking for favors.
But when your request isn’t in person, it becomes all too easy for the recipient to ignore your message until it disappears into inbox oblivion—or, worse, delete it completely.
So when you need a favor, how do you write an email that will get a response? The short answer is: carefully. Here are a few pointers to help you craft a message that will actually get your reader’s attention—and the response you need.
Use the Subject Line to Your Advantage
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 his or her inbox, and you’ll immediately up the chances that he or she will 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 let him or her know specifically why you sent the communication. For example: “Need your review: Adjustments to program brochure.”
Need some help writing a great subject line? Check out these tips.
Greet Your Reader Before Making Demands
I frequently get emails from students that 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: “Hi Randi! How was the 10K this weekend? I thought of you on Saturday and sent good vibes your way.” Or, “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 is important to you. Your recipient is, after all, a human with feelings and interests outside of the office. Sometimes the best way to connect with a person and get him or her on board with something is to be nice.
Remember What You Learned in English Class
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 in this state, stop. Take a deep breath. When asking for assistance, the last thing you want to do is make it difficult for someone to understand your request. If your recipient can’t make sense of your email, you’ve just hurt your chances of getting the help you need.
For example, a rambling paragraph without appropriate commas is going to force the reader to read and re-read sections to make sure she or he understands what you’re trying to communicate. That takes extra time and can be extremely frustrating—two things you want to avoid. The fix is simple: Write complete sentences. Break long paragraphs up into smaller paragraphs. Use commas appropriately.
And one last punctuation tip: If you tend to end sentences with a string of exclamation points, please stop. Unless you’re announcing that your team just won a bajillion-dollar deal, your sentence does not necessitate a row of exclamation points.
Don’t Write a Novel
Yes, when sending a request by email, you need to exercise some finesse by including a greeting, complete sentences, and appropriate punctuation. But it’s entirely possible to accomplish those things and make your request in just a few sentences, rather than several paragraphs.
Some career experts suggest emails should be five sentences or less. There’s even a tool that can help you limit your emails to the sentence number of your choice.
Depending on the complexity of your request, you may not always be able to stick to the five-sentence suggestion, but you should 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.
How was the 10K this weekend? I thought of you on Saturday and sent good vibes your way. I would love to hear about it!
I wanted to follow up with you about the steering committee. I really need a chairperson for the subcommittee that will handle the strategic planning sessions. You have a strong background in strategic planning and strong relationships around the office. I think you are the ideal person to fill this role. Could we meet this week to discuss it further?”
See? Polished, but to the point. Instead of writing paragraphs about the reasons why Randi would be the ideal candidate, the author provided a clear and concise explanation of what she wants, followed by a request to discuss it further.
Don’t Send the Email
I know—you just read an entire column about crafting an effective “ask” by email, and now I’m telling you not to hit send. What’s the deal?
Typing that email wasn’t a waste. Sometimes typing and editing a request can help you think through your message so that you are clear about what you want to ask, how you will support your request, and how you might address questions or concerns that arise from the request. That can be a valuable exercise to prepare you for a face-to-face ask.
Some requests are completely appropriate by email. However, if you have an important request and direct access to the person who can help you, ask yourself if an in-person conversation would be more beneficial than an electronic request. There is no context, tone of voice, facial expression, or emotion by email. Sometimes, sitting across from a person and letting him or her see your genuineness, your feelings, your smile, or your dismay—you know, the things that make you human—can sell your message far better than the most thoughtfully crafted (but devoid-of-humanity) email.
For the record, I’m not anti-technology. I write a lot of emails and spend too much time chasing rabbits through Twitter. But if I really need a person’s buy-in or help, I believe I can and should make the effort to pick up the phone or walk to his or her office to explain what I want and why I think that person can help me.
Keep your request concise, to the point, and polished—whether electronic or face-to-face—and you’ll have a much better chance of getting the assistance you need.