Being able to send an email that gets replies from people can be the difference between closing a big deal and having to cut back on spending for the month, the difference between landing your dream job and continuing to slave away in the job you hate, and the difference between meeting one of your heroes and wasting away wishing you had met them.
Yet people are never really taught how to send decent emails. I see it all the time – people send me an email (or ask me for feedback on an email they’ll send) and my immediate reaction upon seeing the email is, “hasn’t anybody ever taught this person how to send good emails?”
There are a few common mistakes that I see more often than others, though. These are the five major reasons your email didn’t get a reply.
1. It’s Too vague.
The number one reason your email didn’t get a reply from that busy person you sent it to is that it is way too vague. Your email is too vague when the person cannot easily look at it and know exactly what you want from them.
I see this all the time from people looking for jobs and from young entrepreneurs looking to get feedback on their businesses.
The email goes on and on talking about their qualifications, or their product, or their company, but never actually makes clear what they want from the person they are emailing.
The thing about emailing people more busy than yourself is that they will respond to your emails if you make it easy for them to do so. To make it easy for them to respond, you need to make it very clear what you want from them.
If you want feedback on something, ask for specific feedback and give them some points they can start from, like asking them if there’s a specific problem they ran into in launching their own product, or if they think your introduction to your book should be short or long.
Whatever you do, do not use this language:
“I’d love to hop on the phone to pick your brain…”
“Would be interested in your thoughts on this…”
“Let’s meet up to discuss when you have some time…”
“Do you have time to…”
When you use language like this, you immediately label yourself a gigantic time-suck. These are all vague, unspecific requests. A better way of reframing these same questions would be to ask for a specific time to discuss a specific subject with that person.
2. It’s Too long.
Have you ever received an email from somebody and immediately saw that the length went on more than Atlas Shrugged?
How do you feel when you receive an email like that?
Chances are, you feel overwhelmed and exhausted just looking at it. You aren’t even that busy! You probably have the time to sit down and read the novel sent to you in an email and you still don’t want to.
Now imagine you are somebody much busier than yourself. You’re a corporate executive, a founder, a well-known author, or a public figure. You get an email that goes on for paragraphs and paragraphs, with the author telling you their life story, going on about how important it is that you reply to them and how much they admire you, and then making a big long ask for your time.
Are you going to reply to that email or are you going to mark it as unread and tell yourself you’ll get to it when you have time?
The thing is, since you’re so busy, you’ll never have time to get to that email.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to use when sending emails:
If you can’t glance at it on your phone and get the gist within a few seconds, it’s too long.
Find a way to shorten your email, make your ask clear, and not be a time-suck. If you feel like you need to tell your life story, don’t do it in your first email. Wait to establish a connection with the person before you deluge them with personal anecdotes.
Short emails get replies at a considerably higher rate than long emails.
3. It’s Too generic.
I’m a big fan of email scripts. Some things work really well and if it isn’t broken, why fix it?
But the trap with email scripts is that they become less effective as more people use them. It’s easy to rely on one format to an email and to blast out messages with that format if it has worked in the past. Eventually, though, that format starts to look generic and less sincere.
If an email looks generic, the reader will assume you just plugged their name and email address into a mail merge document and blasted out 500 identical emails, hoping that you’ll get a handful of replies.
This is a particularly big problem for junior sales professionals looking to generate more leads and searching frantically online for email scripts that work. The trap is that the most popular scripts are going to be those being used by the most people. If you’re a corporate executive who gets dozens of cold emails every day, you see the same scripts day in and day out.
To overcome this problem, ask yourself, “what is the psychology behind the successful scripts?” and replicate that without replicating the script word for word.
The psychology behind most successful email scripts plays to a few key points:
1. Rapport – The sender establishes rapport with the reader, usually by a sincere appeal to the reader’s work (i.e., an article they’ve written online) or their business. This is something that has to be filled in by hand and can’t just be generalized as, “I love reading articles by corporate professionals!” That comes off as insincere and backfires.
2. Respect – The sender communicates to the reader that s/he respects their time and wants to add value to their life, not suck it away. Being specific and brief is a good way of communicating this.
3. Responsibility – The sender lets the reader know that they are responsible for the conversation and are there to help the reader do something they value like solve a problem in the business, add value via mentoring or advice, or grow their knowledge.
There is no get-rich-quick scheme in writing fantastic emails but there is a psychology to follow that lends itself to success.
4. It’s Too Much.
A solid email has one clear ask.
When you’re emailing somebody and asking them to do something for you, you rely on their perception that doing it will be low cost for them. You also rely on their ability to discern clearly what you want them to do.
An email with multiple asks compounds the cost of performing just one of the asks. They get that email and, even if they decide to do just one of the asks, perceive, “how much more is this person going to ask of me?”
If you want to make multiple asks of an individual, spread your asks out over multiple emails starting with the highest value ask first.
I sometimes get emails asking me to “hop on the phone to pick [my] brain,” and to make introductions to very important people I know. When I get those emails, I always ask the sender to accomplish a few small tasks first. If they had asked just for my input on a specific topic and later asked for an introduction, I would have been considerably more likely to give them both. By asking for both at the same time, they signal to me that they are merely being transactional in our relationship and asking me to burn social capital on their behalf.
Start with one ask. As you build more rapport and social capital, then move to asking for more.
5. It’s Too short.
“What? I thought you said that emails didn’t get a reply because they’re too long!”
Yes, emails being too long is a bigger problem than emails being too short. Yet, sometimes, people find a way to shoot themselves in the foot by treating emailing like text messaging.
Unless you already know the person well or the email chain is implied to be casual, don’t treat emailing like text messaging.
The perceived cost of getting a new email, opening it, reading it, and replying to it is, for whatever reasons, higher for most people than the perceived cost of receiving a text message. Keep your powder dry and only send emails when you need to send them. If you need to coordinate logistics with somebody, try to move to text messaging to keep yourself from leaning on email.
I’m releasing Email Anybody: Get Replies from Very Busy People, Effortlessly Send Amazing Emails, and Save Time & Energy early next year. Join the email list (the blue bar at the top of the screen) to get early access at a discount.