If I were to make a list of my personal superpowers, it would include things like finding the best diners in a city, seeing opportunities being left by others, and actually getting in the door with anybody.
For me, the ability to send emails that work and get replies from Very Busy People essentially built the beginning of my career and has taken me to a place where I can pursue any path I would want to.
This ability to send emails that work to Very Busy People developed over years of trying to get in the doors with CEOs and Presidents of companies, founders and investors, and just interesting people whom I admired. I thought I was good at writing emails (I am a good writer, after all!) and would read, proofread, and verify my emails before sending them. It was not until I actually had to start sending these emails to Very Busy People (and not just peers, professors, or run of the mill professionals) that I realized that most people are terrible at writing emails.
Even worse, as this skill has paid its returns, I’ve started becoming a Very Busy Person (although on the lower end of the spectrum) and have become the recipient of emails from others.
These are some of the notes I’ve learned about writing emails that work. If you master this skill, you master the skill of getting in the door with anybody. If you master that skill, the world is your oyster.
The No-Reply Psychology
I’m not going to break down an obviously-bad email for you. That’d be punching down and it would be too easy. Obviously-bad emails tend to be big blocks of text, have no clear call to action, have terrible, irrelevant subject lines, and just obviously look like time-sucks. These are emails that only somebody very charitable with their time works with.
Instead, it’s more useful to break down why an email that looks good is not working.
Here’s the psychology of the average person writing an email to a Very Busy Person:
“This person is very busy and receives lots of emails per day. I need to make it clear to them why they should reply to my email and I need to make it clear what I am emailing them about.”
“So, I am going to do the following: clear subject line, clear paragraphs (no giant blocks of text!), clear ask, and I’ll even throw in a piece of collateral as an attachment for them.”
They end up drafting an email like this:
Dear Mr. Slayback,
I am a student at the University of Emailing who came across one of your articles recently and I enjoyed it. I have found myself a student of emailing for some time and realized that what you said about writing emails to Very Busy People was spot-on. I decided to enroll at the University of Emailing after I had reached a plateau in my career as a student. No matter what I tried to do, my emails were not getting replies. My career stagnated. My earnings dipped. What was worst: I could not easily switch jobs because I did not know how to write emails!
I’m writing a term paper on the nature of emails and the history of the E-Mail system. I’ve attached my draft of it here. As you will see, we have to go into why email has been and continues to be the best way to get a hold of people and have to answer objections from people who think that email is irrelevant for the 21st century. I’d love your thoughts on it when you get a minute. Do you have time for a phone call?
Looking forward to hearing from you.
This email looks good from the outside. It has some basic components of an okay email:
— clear subject line
— clear paragraphs
— clear call to action/ask
— piece of collateral
— signature implying a response
This email would not get a response from most Very Busy People.
The Psychology of Very Busy People
Bad email senders think that Very Busy People have a psychology that is different from their own. Okay email senders know that Very Busy People are just like you and I but fail to write emails like that. Great email senders know that Very Busy People are just like you and I and that they have even less time.
Imagine for a moment that you are an Average Busy Person. You rush out the door to go to work in the morning, shuffle between calls and meetings, come home and may get a little bit of downtime in the late afternoon or evening. Now imagine you received the above email during your Average Busy day. You know what the person wants you to do — he wants you to (1) skim his paper, (2) think of feedback, and (3) schedule a time to chat about feedback with him — but the chances that you have that time right now are very low. So you tell yourself you will come back to it when you have time.
Very Busy People are just like that except they never have time to come back to it. They mark the email as unread or move it to an inbox with a “to-do” label, but unless it is an urgent and important item for them, it is more likely to collect cyber-dust than it is to garner a reply.
The worst emails for Very Busy People are those that are written well but have no clear ask. “Hop on a call,” “collaborate together,” “would love your feedback,” and “interested in connecting,” are all terms that infect these cancerous messages. They just signal, “Time Suck!” to the Very Busy Person but look like clear asks to the sender. The sender then is confused or offended when the Very Busy Person does not respond. The ask should be crystal clearand should not be open-ended at all. If it is a first email, it should be a very low-cost ask, too.
The life of a Very Busy Person is constantly managing the intersection of the urgent and the important. Your email is probably neither for them, so you should make the cost of responding essentially zero.
Writing Emails for Very Busy People
That brings us to the question, what would be a better way of emailing a Very Busy Person?
The email written for a Very Busy Person has such a low cost of immediately responding that it looks like more work to come back to the email later and respond. This is cost in terms of time and mental energy.
A better way of writing the above email could look like this:
I am a student at the University of Emails and I came across your article on writing emails for Very Busy People. I thought it was engaging and wanted to ask you a quick question about emails that would help me with an upcoming term paper.
Would you say that email is:
A) Likely to be replaced by a new form of communication sometime soon.
B) Unlikely to be replaced by a new form of communication sometime soon.
C) B, but also that email has not even yet reached its peak value for businesses.
I’d appreciate your thoughts on the above — it would help me with a section on my paper that I can’t quite get past.
I appreciate your time.
This email does essentially the same as the above but is more likely to garner a response from a Very Busy Person. It does not require that the Very Busy Person read a term paper or download an attachment, it does not even require typing out a full sentence in response (“A” would be an appropriate response), and it makes responding less costly than marking to come back to later.
Building in canned responses is a great way to make it easier for a Very Busy Person to respond. Once you have their response, then you can try your luck in asking for more like a phone call.
I am using this technique right now in an email exchange with a Very Busy Person who is one of the most prominent academics in the world. After an initial phone call with him and a friend several weeks ago, I followed up about a product that he wanted to send along to some people in our networks. My email to him was very clear that I:
- Appreciate his time.
- Need the product he offered from him.
- Can answer any questions he has.
He responded merely with an email asking how many products to send along. My reply to that was just a number. He had the product immediately sent along.
Once this product arrives, I will then follow up with a thank you message and request a brief phone call with him.
If I were to request the phone call and the product at the same time, the likelihood of getting both would be considerably lower than breaking them apart to what is essentially a personalized drip campaign.
- Can your responses for them.
- Be ultra-specific in your asks.
- Do not be a time-suck.
- Play the long game. Focus on getting a response first before asking for everything that you might want from this person.
If you follow this psychology, “make your emails easier to respond to than coming back to them later,”you will increase your chances of getting responses from Very Busy People markedly.
I’m writing A Complete Guide to Emailing Very Busy People that you can get by joining my email list at www.zakslayback.com. I send out regular teardowns like this and other guides on professional development.