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How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program

Getting people to respond to your emails is a delicate art. Especially when you're emailing them cold. We offer a no-nonsense breakdown of how to craft an "ask" that will get your foot in the door.

One of the golden rules of writing is: Respect the reader’s intelligence. This rule gets magnified by a factor of 10 when it comes to composing unsolicited emails.

Most people who receive any significant quantity of email in a day have developed extremely refined bullshit detectors. They can identify an impersonal templated email in 0.5 seconds, and they can spot a time-wasting “let’s explore the possibilities” ask from a mile off.

In short, getting someone that you don’t know to pay attention to you—and respond—is a delicate art. One that requires craftsmanship, charm, concision, and a lot of self-editing.

Based on years of drafting, redrafting, observation, and misfires, here are a few pointers to keep in mind when composing an email “ask”:

Step 1: Make it easy to say, “Yes.”

When it comes to giving good email, making it easy to say “Yes!” is objective number one. Sadly, it’s also where most people fall down on the job.

I frequently receive emails from people who are interested in some sort of knowledge exchange but never clarify how they would like for me to take action. Do they want to have a coffee? Do they want to do a phone call? It’s unclear, which means that instead of saying, “Yes!” I have to respond by asking them what they’re asking me for in the first place. Or, not respond at all.

If you are asking someone to take the time to answer you, it should be very clear what you are asking for. Look at your email and ask yourself: “Can the recipient say ‘Yes’ without further discussion?”  If the answer is yes, you’re doing well. If not, you need to redraft.

Step 2: Write an intriguing subject line. 

Composing a good email subject line is akin to writing a great headline. If you’re cold-emailing someone you’ve never met, it’s important to strike a balance between being direct and being interesting.

If I were asking someone to speak at our annual 99U Conference, for instance, I might use a subject like: “Jessica + Behance’s 99U Conference?” (Analysis: Using someone’s name feels personal; mentioning Behance in addition to 99U gives more chance of name recognition; and the question mark gives a sense of possibility/ creates curiosity.)

Keep in mind that while it’s always good to be clear, you also don’t want to give anyone a reason to dismiss your email before reading it. For that reason, you’ll want to avoid stock or cookie-cutter phrases that might get your email lumped in (and glossed over) with others.

For instance, for a speaker ask for the 99U Conference, I typically avoid run-of-the-mill phrases like “speaking opportunity” or “speaking invitation,” because they can turn people off before they’ve really assessed my particular opportunity.

Step 3: Establish your credibility.

“Why should I care?” is the tacit question hovering in most people’s minds every time they open an email from someone they don’t know. This is why establishing your credibility is crucial. Tell your reader why you are different, why you are accomplished, and why they should pay attention to you.

If I’m contacting someone about contributing to, I might share stats on our monthly pageviews and social media reach to do this. If the ask is related to one of our events, I would share audience size, years sold out, and a power-list of past speakers.

If you don’t have “data points” to share, you can also establish credibility by being a keen observer of the person you are contacting; you could tell them how long you’ve followed their work, how you enjoyed the last blog post they wrote, etc. As long as it’s not fawning, most people appreciate being noticed.

“Why should I care?” is the tacit question hovering in most people’s minds every time they open an email from someone they don’t know. 

Step 4: Be concise & get to the point.

Never assume that someone is going to read your entire email. You should make it clear from the get-go exactly what you are asking for. That means clarifying why you’re reaching out in the first sentence or two, and no later.

However, sometimes everything you need to say can’t be explained in 1-3 sentences. If this is the case for your ask, go ahead and say your piece (as concisely as you can) but assume your reader will be skimming it. This means using bolding, bullet pointing, and so forth as much as possible.

If it’s necessary to give some backstory prior to the ask, I like to just go ahead and break out the ask in paragraph two with a bolded preface that reads, “The Ask:” If you’re asking for something, there’s no point in beating around the bush. Make your objective clear.

Step 5: Give a deadline if you can.

People are often shy about including deadlines in emails, especially when cold-emailing. While it’s never a good idea to come off as presumptuous, deadlines do have great utility. In fact, most busy people like them. Bear in mind when you are emailing someone that—surprise!—they are probably also getting tons of emails from other people.

Most of those emails fall into one of two categories: 1) Things they have to do, and 2) Random requests for things that they might like to do, time permitting. Chances are, your email falls into group two. Which means it’s really important to know when something needs a response by. In other words, do whatever you can to help the receiver put the requested task on a timeline and prioritize it.

Step 6: Be interesting and interested.

At the most basic level, this means do not ever send anyone a templated email. If you are asking someone to take the time and energy to reply to you, make it clear that you actually know who they are.

That doesn’t mean being obsequious and singing their praises, it does mean talking to them like you are one human talking to another human. It’s nice to articulate why you’re interested in them. It’s also nice to articulate why they should be interested in you. Try to have a voice and say something funny, meaningful, or thoughtful—preferably all three!

Step 7: Never ever ever use the word “synergy.”

No single word lights up the experienced emailer’s bullshit detector like the word “synergy.” No one worth their salt wants to spend their time talking about exploring synergies. Emails with this language typically mean that the person asking for something hasn’t really thought through their ask enough to offer any specificity. If you want someone to take a chance on you, show them respect by thinking through what you are asking for and being up front about it. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and theirs. 

No one worth their salt wants to spend their time talking about exploring synergies.

Step 8: Preview your email on a phone.

You probably write most of your “ask” emails on a desktop computer. Bear in mind that your recipient will be receiving and reading your email on their mobile phone in almost all instances. And what looks “digestible” on a desktop computer looks like an epic poem on a mobile phone.

As per point 4, you may think you have already confirmed that your email is concise. But is it still concise on an iPhone? Once you check, you will probably realize there are a few more things you can remove. Edit your email again, and then send.

What’s your take? 

What have you learned about crafting a great “ask” email? Any additional tips to share?

This is the second post in a three-part series about networking.

Part 110 Tips for an Awesome Coffee Meeting
Part 2How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program
Part 3The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Contacts + Building Quality Relationships

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (51)
  • growthguided

    Number 7 is rather out there!

    Have you ever had an experience that has gone sour surrounding the use of the word “Synergy”?

    • Reza Putra

      When I worked for a creative division in an IT company, one of the managers loved to use it. We were speaking in Indonesian–the word is borrowed. At that time I really didn’t get what he meant and I didn’t like the word 😀

  • Steven Spassov

    That’s a pretty solid article. Great tips! Though number 7 was a little strange.

  • coachcbg1

    Great points. Your content can be whittled down further by the use of the following simple formula. Does your email tell them: What it is? (your idea) What it does? (your idea) What they should do next? (about your idea). And definitely leave out the BS buzz words, no one likes a clever-dick!

  • To

    Do you lift

  • john

    nr 1 on my bullshit detector list: ‘win-win’

  • Rebecca Otis

    Hi Jocelyn, love this topic and so relevant in the age of remote communication and email. Here’s a blog post I wrote about solving the challenge of asking for something from a stranger:

  • antoinepgrew

    One idea per sentence. No $25 words when 5-cent words will do.

    • jkglei

      Agreed on big words!

  • Vinay

    Thanks for the tips Joce, this definitely is a good take-away for people like me, who don’t send cold emails often but when they do, they have a story to share which might or might-not interest the recipient but it was shared so their genuine interest could be expressed. I’m little surprised as I felt the post was crafted for me as I had contacted you few days ago with a request for 99U Conference. I personally feel Step 4 & Step 8 is where I need to focus and refine before hitting ‘send’.

  • Gurudatt Kundapurkar

    Jocelyn, thanks for the valuable tips some of which I had used and found effective. Yet impact of a well crafted email message may not necessarily be uniformly good on all. For example, in my appeal for funds for mental health NPO while majority preferred to be silent, one of those who responded positively wrote, ‘The cheque I have sent is the least that I could have done, sitting here hundreds of Kms away, to help you guys to carry on with your support to the mentally ill.’ The value of this cheque in a way was inconsequential. So, Jocelyn, would you also please share tips for ‘responding to emails with a heart!’ Thanks in advance.

    • jkglei

      Wow, good point. Responding to emails with heart is a tall order. But a great idea. I’ll think on it! : )

      • Gurudatt Kundapurkar

        Thanks and await eagerly your tips.

  • Londonista

    Invaluable 99U nugget. I have had some great ‘wins’ through my email asks. Bullshit detector is a brilliant reality check.

  • Suzanne Hale

    Thank you = great list! I like point 7. If you are asking someone to make an effort on your behalf, then make an effort yourself.

  • jkglei

    Amen. Core competencies is a good one.

  • Juho Nikko

    Something to add to step 5 – deadlines:

    It’s often good to offer to get back to the recipient yourself, and to give a set time for that, for example two days after sending the message. This way, the person you’re writing to won’t necessarily have to write you back immediately, but still they’ll know to expect a phone call from you. This is of course only for situations where you don’t know the recipient.

    Thoughts on this?

  • Johanna Björk

    I would add: Do not include attachments, especially 10+ MB ones (happens more often than you think)! If you need to show images or include other materials to make your point, set up a Dropbox (or similar) and include a link.

  • Eugene Matthews

    Excellent article. One thing I would add in addition to the other thoughts, is to use plain text where possible, to ensure your message isn’t distorted by HTML.

  • Ty Williams

    One major step missing – and this burns me up – is adding a “Please” and “Thank you” in the closing. Some emails come across as stern or as a directive. Saying “Thank you” at the end of an email just totally closes the loop in the email. Some people just follow their closing paragraph with their name and/or signature line – that’s a no-no. Closing with “Thanks” or “With Regards” or something to the affect helps tremendously. Try it!

  • AdaPia

    Step 8 should be a commandment and as we shift indelibly to mobile (it will soon overtake desktop) it could even be useful to type the message on a phone, as that exercise itself will ensure you keep it short, to the point, and as per some people’s comments below – courteous and kind.

  • julee julison

    step-mum just purchased an awesome black Mazda CX-5 SUV by working parttime from a macbook. important link……………..


  • Denise

    Should the part about “exploring synergies” apply to online dating profile too?

  • João Barbosa

    But it’s so synergic… 😀 really good article and I’m definitely sharing it.

  • Reza Putra

    “And what looks “digestible” on a desktop computer looks like an epic poem on a mobile phone.” Thank you for this reminder! 😀

  • Alessandro Ricevuto

    Good. This is probably the best advice I’ve ever read on e-mail communications. Thanks.

  • Birgit Engelhardt

    I’m about to send a link to this post to about 50% of the requests I get. I probably will from time to time!

  • Marc Edwards

    Sometimes for credibility, I use a customer’s inquiry and how I’m in a position to help as my credibility for why they should read what I wrote.

  • Joseph Poniatowski

    Number 7 rips on a single word “Synergy”. Hating that one word more than any is a quality of elite people according to this author. You have my attention as a reader. You should be more careful to think that I want to adopt your “pet peeves” as well.

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