How to Get People to Respond to Your Emails


“Circling back…”

“Just checking in with a friendly reminder…”

“In case this ended up in spam…”

Sound familiar? We’ve all had to send these types of replies to messages that have gone unanswered. I’m not talking about mass sales emails with a “spray and pray” strategy, but rather those person-to-person, important messages where a reply is not only warranted by absolutely necessary for you to do your job.

How can you make sure your request stands above the flood of the other messages rolling into someone’s inbox in a day? Here’s what I’ve learned from more than a decade of perfecting the “practice” of getting quick and clear responses from all types of audiences.

The subject line is critical to success.

Be direct and don’t beat around the bush. The subject line is where you need to grab your recipient’s attention and let them know that the information contained in the message needs their specific input. While it’s helpful to tell them what it’s pertaining to, it’s even more helpful (especially for eliciting a response) if you let them know that an action is requested of them. A typical subject line of “Invitation to Business Luncheon” is not incorrect, but it’s not obvious whether it’s urgent, important, or seeking the recipient’s direct action. It can be seen as a courtesy FYI. Try instead “[DATE] Business Luncheon: Your Response Requested” or even better “[DATE] Business Luncheon: Response Needed by [DATE].” Think like the recipient. What keywords will grab their attention and resonate with something that feels familiar, interesting, and important to them? A subject line that is too vague may appear to be spam. And a subject line that is too descriptive may be uninteresting. With practice, you’ll learn the right balance for each audience. The important thing here is to always be watching, learning, and evolving.

Be clear and concise in your “ask.”

Once you establish a subject line that communicates a clear call to action, be sure to open your message with how and when that action is needed. Don’t open with pleasantries. The most courtesy thing you can do is cut to the chase. I promise, no one will complain that you didn’t open with “I hope you’re having a good day.” Your first sentence should do three things: 1. Make the “ask” clear. 2. Set a deadline for when the action needs to be completed. 3. Communicate why it matters. Here’s an example: Please respond by 5pm ET on Tuesday, May 10 as to whether or not you plan to attend. Your response is needed so we can plan an accurate and appropriate agenda for the meeting that offers the best utilization of everyone’s time. Thank you in advance!

This sample message can and should be altered to reflect the relationship you have with that person, the level of importance of the request, and your personal voice. The bottom line is to always include the three points mentioned above in some way to ensure you’re respectful of their time, and in turn, they should be respectful of yours.

Set a deadline for your request.

And speaking of being respectful of someone’s time, deadlines help immensely! They set expectations that are tangible and measurable. And they remove the guesswork. When you’re asking something of someone, set a reasonable and realistic deadline based upon the nature of the ask. If it’s a simple yes/no response, a tight deadline is acceptable. If the request requires a bit more work or it involves other people, you can offer additional time. I’ve found that however long you give someone to respond is about how long they’ll choose to take – and then some. So it’s okay to bluff here. If you’re planning an event and need to give the caterer a headcount 3 days out, ask for RSVPs no later than 1 week out. You’ll still be following up with some stragglers, but at least this gives you wiggle room to do so. Arbitrary deadlines are okay too. Alright, so no one might actually “die” if you don’t get a response by your requested deadline, but it still helps you in your planning and workflow. That’s a legitimate reason for a deadline and should be respected! By not setting a deadline, even an arbitrary one, the request feels less urgent and important and drastically reduces your chances of getting a timely response. Always set a deadline!

Do as much of the leg work as possible.

The easier the ask the more likely you are to get a response. Meet the person more than halfway! It’s likely you stand to gain something through their response, even if it’s just the ability to move forward without sending follow-up upon follow-up. There’s value to that! I try to be as clear and organized as possible in my communications, even when presenting the ask in an email. Highlight, use different colors, and reference attachments that make it easy to understand what’s being asked, without being overwhelming. Draft your email, then go back and edit it heavily. Less is more, especially because this allows your core request to take center stage. A long email that feels like a lot of effort to read and respond to will get shoved in the “later” pile which can quickly become the “never” pile. Be clear, concise, and make it easy to receive a reply!

Anticipate questions and concerns.

If your email request leaves the recipient with questions, your ask just got a whole lot bigger. Now they have to email you that question, wait for your response, and complete the initial ask based upon that response. This can spiral out of control, and with every follow-up email, you lose time and attention. Anticipate the most obvious and common questions and address them in the first email. If you’re requesting a meeting date, start by offering them several options from which they can choose. Don’t leave this open-ended. If you’re inviting them to an event or meeting, make sure it’s clear the date, time, expectations, and how to respond are clear. You can even follow up with a calendar invite where they simply click yes or no. You don’t need to be exhaustive in your anticipation of questions, but focus on the big ones. Be sure all obvious information is included so that making a decision is easy.

Communicate why it matters – to them, too!

And finally, as humans, we all want to know what’s in it for us. Your need for a response is likely obvious. But what does that matter to the recipient? Why should they take the time to give you what you’re asking it? It needs to matter to them, too. Make this clear in your messaging. Here are some common ways to frame the “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM).

  1. Your opinion, expertise, or skill is needed to accomplish something of value that you can take part in.
  2. I’m offering you something that should be of value to you. (Explain the value!)
  3. You’ve committed to doing something, and now I need you to do it.

There’s more, but these are the top three umbrellas under which most requests will fall. The call to action should always be the most obvious, highlighted piece of your message. But second to that is the WIIFM. Don’t expect your recipient to connect the dots. Besides, we all like to hear what prize, pleasure, or fulfillment we can expect to gain when we do what someone else tells us to do. It’s the ultimate motivator!

Do you struggle with receiving timely replies from people you email? What strategies have you found to deliver the most reliable, consistent responses? Share your advice or advice a question below!