I’ve been speaking at various conferences on entrepreneurship, economics, and education several times per year for the past three years. As a result of my participation in various panel discussions, breakout sessions, debates, and lectures, I’ve attracted a plethora of young academics and entrepreneurs who seek my advice concerning their business ideas and other professional pursuits. I receive at least 1-2 emails per week from people who fall into this category. While I make it a point to reply to all received messages regardless of how poorly they may have been written, I’ve been more than a bit troubled by the lack of tact and professionalism characterizing those messages. So I’ve decided to pen a brief list of things not to do when emailing someone for professional help or advice.
This list is based on real emails I’ve received in the past year. As you read this list, please keep in mind that I have no interest in poking fun of people or making them feel guilty for their mistakes. If you’ve done some of the things I mention below, there’s no need to send me an apology nor is there any need to feel bad about yourself. The goal of education is to equip people with conceptual tools and other resources that will help them become superior versions of themselves. In that spirit, and in that spirit alone, I offer the following advice on how to not ask for help.
1) Don’t mention the receiver’s name:
Half the messages I receive don’t mention my name. Instead of a personal greeting like “Hi T.K.” and “Dear T.K.,” they write “Hey there” and “Hi you” or something along similar lines. I’m the last person on the planet to be offended if someone doesn’t know my name. I don’t need people to address me by my name or my title. However, I’m not the last person on the planet who wants to avoid spam. And emails that begin with an impersonal greeting like “Hey there,” are red flags for spam. Unless you’re emailing a family member, a close friend, or a non-professional contact for non-professional purposes, always address the person by their name. A modicum of personalisation might distinguish your message from the dozens of spam artist who are too lazy to take the five seconds necessary to write a human sounding greeting. Unless you are 100% certain that the person you’re emailing is perfectly fine with being addressed with a general impersonal greeting like “Hi there,” never assume that the receiver will be okay with you omitting their name. You can never go wrong by mentioning someone’s name in your greeting, but you can quickly lose social capital if you give the impression of being someone who’s lazy, careless, or inconsiderate.
2) Assume the receiver knows who you are:
I once received a message asking me for advice and I had no idea who the person was. Using their email address, I looked them up on Facebook and discovered we weren’t friends. Judging from their picture, I had no recollection of ever having met them. To be fair, there’s a possibility that I’ve actually met this person before. I sincerely doubt it, but there’s always a chance. Because of my personal policy of replying to all messages asking me for advice (even if it’s just to say “I can’t help”), I wrote the person back. It turns out that this was a person who never met me. Two important points here: 1) Most people aren’t going to be that charitable. If they don’t recognize who you are, they’ll just ignore your message. If you assume that people are going to look you up on Facebook or email you back regardless of them not knowing who you are, you’re taking an unnecessary gamble. 2) If you need someone’s professional help, give them a brief reminder of how they might know you. It takes one sentence to say “I met you at the XYZ conference last year.” If the person invited you to ask them questions, feel free to remind them of that fact. It helps. It not only establishes context for your question, but it increases the likelihood that they will feel inspired to actually reply. You can never go wrong by giving a brief one sentence reminder of who you are, but you can quickly lose a person’s attention by failing to distinguish yourself from random uninvited solicitors.
3) Be vague:
A person’s attention is a precious thing. When you need help, their attention is even more precious. Once you have a person’s attention, it’s important to make the moment count. How do you do that? Be specific. Specificity and credibility are often correlated. People who are vague generally sound as if they don’t know what they’re talking about or as if they have something to hide. If you need something, get right to it. Be tactful and respectful, but don’t beat around the bush as if you’re planning some kind of mass conspiracy. Asking a question like “can I ask you a question?” in an email is a waste of everyone’s time. If you have a question, ask it. If you have some sort of special reason for not wanting to delve into the details of your inquiry, briefly explain why and at least give the person a general idea of how you want them to help you. Instead of asking them for their “advice on something,” let them know you’d like them to review your business plan, or watch your youtube video, or help you stop getting into fights with your business partner, or whatever. The more specific you are in your request, the less time they have to spend in the communication thread. More importantly, you’ll get better advice when you’re specific.
4) Always ask for phone calls:
Some people prefer to do business on the phone. Others prefer to handle things in writing as much as possible. Either way, here’s one disadvantage that phone calls have in relation to emails: phone calls must be scheduled. If you email someone a question, they can answer you at 2pm or 2am because their reply doesn’t depend on your schedule. Once you ask for a phone call, however, people have to look at their calendars and plan ahead. This not only reduces your chances of getting a conversation, but it also delays your answer. Here’s a general rule: If you can settle a question via email, settle it via email. If all you have is a quick question, it’s better to ask the question in an email rather than request a phone call. If the nature of your question is such that a phone call is necessary, then let them know what the question/issue is ahead of time. This gives them the ability to form a meaningful thought about your question/issue before getting on the phone. This saves time. Furthermore, if you’re going to ask for a call, try to avoid last minute requests like “can you talk today?” These kinds of requests run the risk of making you appear presumptuous regarding other people’s time or they might make it appear as if you procrastinated until the last possible second. If your situation is an emergency, then treat it like an emergency. But as a general rule, it’s better to give people time to respond.
The above list shouldn’t be treated as a bunch of things to do in order to make me happy. It’s a set of guidelines that can help you get the help you need by showing you how to make requests in a professional and considerate manner. If you’re going to ask someone for professional help or advice, you’ll almost always be better off if you refer to them by their name, help them remember how they should know you, be specific in your requests, and keep unnecessary phone calls to a minimum.