As a journalist who frequently reviews and edits submissions, I often find myself switching between writing and reading follow-up emails. And if there’s anything that being on the sending and receiving end of these have taught me, it’s that many of the tactics people use aren’t very effective (and are really annoying at best).
As a sender, I’ve learned that it’s best to work from the assumption that whoever I’m writing to probably has more pressing matters to attend to than answer my emails. This forces me to make sure I articulate why it’s in the receiver’s interest to reply. As a receiver, there’s nothing more annoying than getting an email that assumes I’ll work to the sender’s timeline, even when it’s clear that it’s extremely inconvenient to mine, or when there’s no benefit to me whatsoever.
Of course, this is just one of the many dos and don’ts to think about when writing a follow-up email. Here are others you might want to consider before sending your next one, particularly if you need a response urgently.
MAKE IT AS EASY FOR THE RECIPIENT AS POSSIBLE
Many people struggle with managing their inboxes as it is. So to make it worth their time to reply to your follow-up, it’s important that you, the sender, do all the hard work you can on your end before hitting “send.”
As Jocelyn Glei writes in her book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, instead of sending a generic message like “just following up”–offer a concise recap of your request so that the person doesn’t have to go back and read your long email thread. As Glei pointed out, “If that person didn’t respond to your email the first time, resending the same message is probably not going to get better results the second time.”
DON’T CREATE MORE WORK FOR THE RECIPIENT
As a receiver, there’s nothing more frustrating than having to search my inbox to figure out what the sender is referring to before I can even reply. On busy days, these are the kinds of emails I tend to ignore. If you send someone a signal that it’s not worth your time to do the hard work yourself, then the recipient will probably feel the same way.
BE POLITE AND RESPECTFUL OF THEIR TIME
There’s nothing wrong with following up, but there is something wrong with following up too soon and writing emails in a way that screams, “I have no respect for your time.” Kara Corridan, executive editor Of Scholastic and former health director Of Parents magazine, previously spoke with Fast Company about following up on a pitch: “Certain people that send me something on a Friday and then follow up on Monday–-it’s ludicrous. Even if we were interested, we couldn’t turn things around that frequently.”
Leave a little bit of a window for the recipient to get back to you and understand that they, too, have other priorities that are probably more important to them than your email. According to Glei, you’re not “entitled to a response from someone else who, like you, might be too busy with their own tasks to deal with yours.”
She wrote, “You might begin your message with, ‘I know you have a hectic schedule, but I’m wondering if you’ve had time to consider my request to . . . ?’ or something similar. Acknowledging that you understand the receiver is juggling a lot of tasks, of which your request is just one small consideration, always helps.”
DON’T BE UNNECESSARILY PUSHY OR PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have marked their emails high priority when it’s clearly not, present arbitrary deadlines that are unreasonable for what they’re requesting, or use passive-aggressive phrases such as, “Hi, I haven’t heard from you since I sent my email over a week ago. I assume you’re not interested, but just in case you are, I thought I’d check in.”
If you’re using any of these approaches to follow up on your request, then the tactic will probably backfire. Corridan told Fast Company that emails with passive-aggressive tones don’t sit well with her. And as Lisa Evans previously wrote for Fast Company, “Flagging your email as high priority should be done sparingly and only in real cases of urgency. Better than marking an email as a high priority? Using a descriptive subject line that emphasizes the urgency of the message.”
INCLUDE SPECIFICS AND A CALL TO ACTION IN YOUR SUBJECT LINE
If your recipient is someone who gets a lot of emails, then chances are that they probably won’t read every single one. Instead, they’re more likely to skim through the subject line and only click on the ones that look important to them. The ones that don’t will probably just be left unread, or relegated to trash.
This does mean that to get their attention, you’ll have to do a little bit of thinking on what exactly you’re hoping to get from their response, and find a way to articulate it in your subject line. Peggy Duncan, productivity expert, author of Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits, Etiquette and Outlook, and founder of The Digital Breakthroughs Institute, previously told Fast Company, “I should know precisely what your email is about just by reading the subject line, the way I would a headline in a newspaper.”
DON’T USE A VAGUE OR GENERIC SUBJECT LINE
Nick Martell and Jack Kramer, cofounders of the financial news newsletter MarketSnacks, previously told Fast Company that “you live and die by your subject line.” “Just checking in,” they say, “is an email subject-line recipe for ‘ignore.’”
ONLY SEND YOUR EMAIL TO THE PERSON CONCERNED
It can be tempting to send emails to multiple people in that team if one person isn’t being particularly responsive, but overusing this approach is unprofessional and should only be used as a last resort.
Duncan said, “When sending an email, ask yourself who needs to receive the information you’re sending, and only send it to those individuals.” If this isn’t clear, ask yourself the question, ‘Would I pick this person to call about what I’m about to email them?’ If the answer is no, Duncan said, “Why are you emailing them about it?”
DON’T COPY OTHERS ON EMAIL WHEN YOU DON’T NEED TO
In your dream world, they’ll have to talk to each other about this because they all got your email, right? Wrong. In fact, they’ll probably just forward it to the person who’s actually supposed to receive the email, and then all you would have done is clog their inbox. How does that make you feel when someone does that to you? We thought so.