Ever sent an email & never received a response back. Here are some tips to help you get your reader to hit the reply button…
1. Perfect the subject line. When it comes to information, it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover. In To Sell Is Human, Dan Pink covers a study showing that people are more likely to read emails with subject lines to create curiosity or provide utility. When people aren’t busy, they’re drawn in by subject lines that intrigue them. But when they’re busy, curiosity fades in importance; the emails that get read are the ones with practical subject lines. When you want to grab the attention of someone important, scrap the entertaining subject lines and focus on utility. Here are some of the most effective subject lines that landed in my inbox from strangers:
- Curiosity: “Advice for a fellow teleological people-person,” “I do not want anything from you,” “Your book kept me up all night,” “I will fly up and see you; you interest me,” and “Dan Pink would want me to write a creative subject line here”
- Utility: “Applying your techniques to recovering addicts” and “Getting you to Atlanta”
- Both: “Can you help give away 4 million dollars a year?” [Here, the sender cleverly went on to clarify, “I know the subject sounds like something you’d get from Nigeria, but…”]
2. Tell them why you chose them. On the receiving end, I was surprised by the number of readers who wrote asking for help without explaining why I was the right person to help them. One person reached out looking for advice on how to become a millionaire; another asked for help fighting amalpractice lawsuit. Neither of these requests is easily handled by a management professor. Good emails overcome this barrier by highlighting what drew you to this person and the distinctive value that he or she can add. It’s worth devoting a sentence or two to what you know about the person’s work, and how it has influenced your life. If you are trying to email people to gain business and clients, talk about why you chose them and why you think they need to use your company. In Real Estate, it is best to talk about location, and how it is a perfect time to buy or sell in your location. Why did you choose this person to represent you or vise versa if your a Realtor why did you chose these clients to represent.
3. Show that you’ve done your homework. A sizable number of readers wrote asking for links to articles that were freely available on my public website. As author Tim Ferriss, himself a cold-email virtuoso, writes, “It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds.” The psychologist Bernard Weiner has found that people are more motivated to help those who try to help themselves. When you reach out to someone busy, Ferriss advises, “Explicitly state what you’ve done to get answers or help yourself.” In our business we truly appreciate this, because it shows that they are serious clients and we can help them to understand the business & market better. Sometimes clients will bring in other comps that we did not pull, by doing so we can explain to them why we did not use the comp and why that one had a flaw.
4. Highlight uncommon commonalities. I felt a stronger connection to strangers who emphasized something unusual that we had in common. As the psychologist Robert Cialdini sums up the evidence from Influence, “Similarity literally draws people together.” In Give and Take, I elaborate on this principle to point out that similarities matter most when they’re rare. We bond when we share uncommon commonalities, which allow us to feel that we fit in and stand out at the same time. Think of the last time you traveled abroad and met someone from your hometown. If you met at home, the connection wouldn’t stand out as unique, but on foreign soil, you’re the only two people from there, so you feel a sense of closeness. We use commonalities like location, things such as “I once owned a property in your area” or “I just sold your neighbors place”.
5. Make your request specific, and keep it short and sweet. Avoid mini-novels, keep it short and to the point. The longer the message, the longer it took me to read and respond, and the more overloaded my inbox, the less patient I was in reading them. As the psychologist Robert Sutton recaps the evidence in Good Boss, Bad Boss, people are more helpful when they’re given clear directions on how to contribute. Ferriss suggests that the best approach is to “send a two- to three-paragraph e-mail which explains that you are familiar with their work, and ask one simple-to-answer but thought-provoking question in that e-mail related to their work or life philosophies. The goal is to start a dialogue so they take the time to answer future e-mails—not to ask for help. That can only come after at least three or four genuine e-mail exchanges.”
6. Express gratitude. Don’t make demands, instead express your appreciation. One person wrote, “We should definitely meet,” and another implored, “Please answer this question.” In my research, I’ve found that people provide more extensive and useful help when it’s an enjoyable choice than when it’s driven by perceived pressure or obligation.
I was excited to help when I felt I could make a difference, not when someone was attempting to coerce me or create a sense of obligation. One of the least motivating strings of emails came from a reader who described a complicated family situation and demanded that I respond “promptly.” Within a week, I sent a three-paragraph reply. I explained that it would be difficult to help without knowing the people involved, but offered a suggestion, attached an article, and recommended a book. The reply from the person said, “I am in receipt of your email” without a single expression of gratitude, and extinguished my desire to be helpful.
Gratitude is more powerful than we realize. In one experiment, Francesca Gino and I asked people to spend some time helping a student improve a job application cover letter. After they sent their feedback, the student replied with a message, “I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter,” and asked for help with another one in the next three days. Only 32% of the people helped. When the student added just eight words—“Thank you so much! I am really grateful”—the rate of helping doubled to 66%. In another experiment, after people helped one student, a different student asked them for help. Being thanked by the first student boosted helping rates from 25% to 55%. The punch line: a little thanks goes a long way, not only for encouraging busy people to help you, but also for motivating them to help others like you.
*For more on achieving influence and motivating people help, see Adam’s new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journalbestseller. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrant