How to get people to reply to your emails

Sandra Busch
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email replies

If, like me, you’re a desk-chained workaholic, you probably spend about a quarter of your day on emails. And, for the record, so does the person you wrote an email to ten minutes ago. So how do you get people to reply to you instead of all their other emails?

Often we shoot off an email only to have it hit a wall of silence, as if the email got lost along the way from one inbox to another. As the sender, it can be frustrating and annoying when we don’t get an email back.

Time-wise email is a significant investment so why do so many of them get lost in the mail‘? Especially when it was supposed to be a just quick way of exchanging information? I mean, isn’t that what the label says?

Email has several issues: First of all, we tend to misunderstand the tone of voice in every other email. Second, we feel overburdened by the sheer volume of our inbox. Finally, we often compose long, abstruse messages that can be somewhat difficult to reply.

Have a clear idea about the recipient’s task

So, how do you get your colleague, customer, or that-guy-named Joe to click that reply-button?

What you need to do is to define the task – and that’s before you start drafting the email, mind you. Too often, people wind up writing random sentences emerging from a chaotic train of thought. Instead, ask yourself this: what do I want Joe to do after reading this email?

The answer to that question is what gives you the overall action plan that’s crucial to Joe: a crystal clear call-to-action. In other words, Joe should be able to decode quickly what kind of response the email calls for: is he getting information, should he provide the information, should he do something else; what?

As soon as the call-to-action is ready, you need to do three crucial things if you have any hopes of getting a reply:

  1. Write a compelling subject line
  2. Get to the point in the two first sentences
  3. Make it easy for people to reply

Easy peasy.

1. Write a compelling subject line

Your subject line has one purpose, and one purpose only: to get Joe to open your email. Make sure you have a clear call-to-action without overselling the contents of your message. If the email fails to live up to its subject line, well, then you’ve got that wall of silence coming.

Here are two simple techniques for writing compelling subject lines:

– Use the imperative mood (get, send, download, read, print, learn, etc.)
– Ask a question (Have you tried this new, powerful Gmail tool?)

Most importantly: get to the point and keep it brief. Studies show that when the characters go up, the responses go down. If you write long subject lines, you risk getting cut off before getting to the point. Keep them under 45 characters or around seven words. That’s somewhere between: “Remember!” and “Final reminder about the marketing workshop next Wednesday afternoon where the topic is SEO optimization and evergreen content, and yes there will be cake”.

2. Get to the point in the two first sentences

When we read blocks of content on a screen, the most common eye scanning pattern takes the shape of an F. Our eyes start at the top-left corner, scan horizontally, then drop down to the next line and continues the same pattern until we stumble across something interesting. The F might be hard to point out, but the conclusion is the same: the novelty wears off after just a few paragraphs.

Take away: the first few words of your email (right after your ‘hello’) are crucial to getting your email read and replied. And because we use our smartphones for just about everything – including reading emails – a rule of thumb is that your recipient should be able to correctly decode your email without having to scroll further down the screen.

Avoid lengthy introductions like: “Your calendar looks so busy today, and I see you have back-to-back meetings all day tomorrow too, which you’re probably preparing yourself for right now, but perhaps your still have time for this one thing I really would love your opinion about…”

There’s nothing wrong with that initial-paragraph-warm-up, but make sure you give your email a critical evaluation before you hit ‘send.’ For your sake – and Joe’s too. 

3. Make it easy for people to reply

Believe it or not, making your emails easy to respond to will, in fact, encourage more email replies – unbelievable, right?

As the sender, your most important task is to make sure the recipient knows exactly what to do after reading your email. However, it’s rarely appropriate to write: “Send me the annual report right freaking now!” In this case, you should probably be a little more forthcoming and work on your metacommunication skills (of course, we all remember how metacommunication is about communicating how a piece of information is meant to be interpreted – right?).

An excellent way to start off your paragraph is to write: “I would like you to respond to two questions.”

Writing that at the beginning of your email means that your recipient will automatically start searching for your two questions while scanning your email. If you’re also numbering your items, well, then you’re really getting the hang of this.

And there you have it! Three easy tips to get people to reply to your emails. Of course, then you have to work on your own replies… But don’t worry: we have some tips for that too! And, if you really want to improve your work email skills, check out our list of email habits to avoid.

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