How to get people to respond to important emails

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Keeping the communication concise and avoiding information overload can help keep the recipient engaged. Photo: Getty
Keeping the communication concise and avoiding information overload can help keep the recipient engaged. Photo: Getty

Emailing can often feel like sending messages into a void. You know the receiver has probably seen it, but you still don’t get a reply. It may have become lost in a pile of junk, or the person may have spotted it, intended to reply, but become sidetracked. Either way, it’s frustrating.

Intentionally or not, we’ve all ignored emails at some point. After all, the average office worker apparently receives 121 emails and sends about 40 each day, so it can be impossible to keep on top of your inbox while working.

“Love or hate them, managing our emails is a significant part of most people’s lives, but so many of us struggle to reply even to the important ones,” says Claire Brown, a life and career coach at the Career Hub, mentor, charity development consultant.

For those of us working from home in the past year, emails, video calls and Slack messages have become our bread and butter. However, the distractions of home-working, from children to housemates and pets, have made it harder to work through the endless list of tasks. Often, replying to emails falls to the bottom of the priority list.

“Perhaps the screen fatigue is really kicking in now, and the energy required to scroll through the endless back and forth email conversations is just too time and energy consuming, so it sits unanswered in the inbox,” Brown says.

Penelope Jones, career coach and founder of My So-Called Career, says feeling overloaded by email, Google Hangout messages and notifications can lead us to ignore them too. “If the majority of our inbox is overly full of things that are not important, not relevant and often not interesting, it can be easy to miss the things that are genuinely important or interesting, or to see something, get distracted and then mentally move on,” she says.

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Clashing expectations between recipient and sender can also cause problems. While some people see email as a way to record messages more formally without urgency, others may expect an immediate response. In general, there’s a lack of consensus about how email should be used, Jones says. “So a person who thinks a four-hour response window is acceptable might be emailing someone who thinks taking a week is ok and anything more urgent should be dealt with using other means,” she adds.

And often, we procrastinate when it comes to replying to emails even when we know we should respond. If we’ve left it really late, then there may seem better to just not reply at all.

So how can we make a response more likely if we rely on email to get things done?

“There are strategies we can employ to encourage timely responses,” Brown says. “By using an attention grabbing header in the subject line, this helps your message to stand out amongst the influx of emails. If you ask for a response in the subject line this communicates really clearly what the reader is being asked to do.”

People with heavy workloads tend to have limited time for emails. Therefore, keeping the communication concise and avoiding information overload can help keep the recipient engaged.

“Try not to exceed 125 words to make it easy for the recipient to respond, but don’t skip the pleasantries,” advises Brown. “Now more than ever, people respond to the more social elements of their interactions and the relational warmth will also encourage a helpful response. Unless the context requires it, don’t use unnecessarily long technical language, keep it simple.”

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Jones recommends spending more time to craft an email that requires a timely response, rather than being generic. “If the recipient is someone you don’t know, don’t know well, or is more senior to you, I would always go in slightly more formal than you might first think,” she says.

Sending your message at an appropriate time can also help too. “Sending emails last thing at night to be the first thing in someone’s inbox in the morning can backfire if you disturb their evening, or they see it late and have forgotten about it by morning.”

And remember, lots of people are busy and struggling to juggle work, life and responsibilities. If they don’t reply, put yourself in their shoes. “A short but sweet nudge never hurt anyone and if your email is hovering somewhere toward the bottom of a to-do list, it can be a welcome prompt,” Jones says.

“But don’t hound people. If you are confident that you wrote an engaging or informative email, and you chased them once and still didn’t hear back, be prepared to let it go.”

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