Forget about innovation and exotic new technology. People still haven’t learnt to use the technology we have. I spent many of my spare hours over the last month adjusting to a new email programme after abandoning Eudora and my PC for a Mac with AppleMail.
It has been a challenge, but what I want to talk about is all the messages in my inbox: Why are they still there?
Consider me a proxy for the person you may be trying to reach by email and persuade to act, whether it’s introducing you to a third party, setting a date, investing some money, or just responding to you in some way.
While there are lots of emails I respond to promptly, I have about 400 that are marked as read but with no response. Yes, I should be more diligent…but what is it about those 400 messages that makes them languish in my inbox? Perhaps you might find the reasons useful as a kind of don’t list.
First, they may lack a subject line. This one is basic, but a few people still just forget to add one. That makes the message easy to miss, or even to dismiss as spam.
Or perhaps the subject line is useless, such as Message from Juan. I know that already. Or at least I do if the sender has a proper return address. And, yes, please, he or she should have a full name, such as Alice Haynes, not just Alice. Chances are I know several Alices.
Or there’s a subject line: Message for Esther. I know that, too. She could, perhaps, say Message for President Obama if she were sharing an open letter, but otherwise…
The best subject line says what the message is about and signals the desired response: Invitation to speak in Paris on 14 July. Or, Investment proposal for your consideration, or, Serve as a reference?
Unfortunately, I get lots of messages headlined, Update. Unless I know the person’s name, I might not know what company it’s about. Update, to me, translates as read later.
But this update message ends with a question: We’re hoping to have our next meeting in mid-July. Will you be available? I might not get to the end of the mail for quite a while…mid-July, perhaps. It’s important to say upfront what you want; that way, you have some chance of getting it.
There are other email sins. It’s good to know what you want, but remember that you should really be thinking of how to motivate your reader. Take the familiar example: Alice asks, Could you please introduce me to Juan Tigar?
Sure, I’d be happy to, but why? Even if I know, and I may or may not, Alice should make it easy for me to do her the favour. You’ve heard of one-click shopping; try one-click introductions.
Could you please pass along this message to Juan Tigar? I am a big fan of HotNewThing, and I understand they need a new marketing manager. My own experience as marketing manager for TiredOldThing makes me an ideal candidate for this job. I positioned TOT’s products as traditional and valuable, and helped sell the company for $20 million. Now, I’d like to take on a new challenge and help position HotNewThing as edgy and innovative. I have several ideas about HNT’s strategy against ZippyNewThing (too edgy) and I’d love to have a chance to discuss them with Juan. I’d be happy to send a bio and references on request.
No problem! All I have to do is click reply, find Juan’s email address, add a brief comment and hit send.
But, more often, the message dumps the work on me. I must try to remember the stories Alice told me, figure out how her skills are relevant to Juan’s problems and compose a note. So, I decide to handle some other messages first. Or I reply to Alice asking her to send me a paragraph or two—and lose my enthusiasm for the project. It’s not that I’m mean or lazy. It’s that I have 400 other messages begging for attention.
Other requests that don’t get my immediate attention include the second question in a two-request message. Once I have addressed the first one, I tend to forget or defer the second one. Just send two messages, so that I can get the satisfaction of handling each one.
Nor do I reliably read attachments or follow links, unless the message text is really exciting. First, I may not be online and may not even be able to open the attachment or follow the link. Second, in these days of spam and malware, it’s not safe to open attachments you are not expecting. If I get an email that says please read from someone I don’t know, I simply delete it.
Finally, I’m busy! When I get a batch of, say, 40 messages after a long flight or in the morning, guess what I don’t do? I don’t click to a website invitation or a presentation.
So, I hope my message is clear. The key thing to think about when sending an email is not the message you send, but the message the recipient receives. Will it stand out in a sea of messages? Will it spur the reader to take the action you want?
As I read this, I know I sound like a lazy, distracted person who can’t be bothered to be helpful. But your goal is not to reform me or others like me. It’s to help us answer your message promptly. The easier you make things, the more likely you are to get the response you want.
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, healthcare, private aviation and space travel.
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