6 Ways to Get Busy People to Answer Your Emails

Ryan Dube 12-11-2013

When you walk by someone on the street and say hi, how does it make you feel when they don’t say a hi back? It’s amazing how small a lack of acknowledgement can make a person feel, but it’s also amazing just how much you can do to encourage a response. The same is true with emails.


Now, imagine the reverse scenario. You’re passing someone on the street and they briefly glance at you, say hi, and then quickly look away. How likely are you to say hi back? Now imagine a person looking you straight in the eyes, smiling broadly and saying hi — even using your name! The odds are much better that you’ll be inspired to respond in kind.

The same again, is true with emails. Except, instead of facial expressions or tone of voice, there is a whole different set of rules when it comes to emailing that will encourage or discourage a person to hit the “reply” button and answer you. In this post, I’m going to share a few tricks with you that I’ve learned over the years — tips that’ll greatly increase your success with getting email responses, even from very busy people.

Why Do You Need a Reply?

When I changed jobs a few years ago, I started working in a company where people were much busier than at my last job. People barely had time to finish project work, so answering emails became a task in prioritizing 5 Gmail Filters to Help Prioritize & Organize Your Inbox What filters should each and every person have in their arsenal so that their inbox is as orderly as mine? I'm here to help you get started in setting up your first five filters, or... Read More . I soon learned that if I didn’t follow a certain format and approach when emailing people, I might not get a response for many days, if at all.

The first thing you need to do when emailing someone — especially someone who is extremely busy — is to take a quick inventory of your own reasons for emailing them. If they’re busy and your email isn’t a high enough priority issue, it’ll probably be stashed away somewhere in a to-do list, only to be dealt with when there’s more time to focus on the issue (if at all).  Busy people have a hard time managing email. The busier they are, the less likely you are to get a response if you don’t play your cards right.




If you can justify the importance of the issue enough to warrant an email, then by all means, let’s get started.

Ask a Question – Preferably About Them

In 2012, Harvard University researchers conducted a pretty thorough study that even involved brain scans, and found that people actually get a “biochemical buzz” from talking about themselves. The more powerful a person is — as many extremely busy people are – the more they enjoy talking about themselves. After all, there’s just so much to tell, right?

This means that if you dangle the carrot of a personal question inside of your email, you’re basically tempting that person with a personal high — the opportunity for a little bit of a “buzz” by sharing something about themselves with you. And some people just really, really like the opportunity to have a soap box. So give it to them.



You can just ask how a project they’re working on is going. If you are very close to them and talk about family often enough, ask how the family is doing. If there’s a big game everyone is talking about — ask them what they think. Give them an opportunity to respond to you and “take a break” from thinking about work so much. You can follow up your question with the work-related question you wanted to ask in the first place, but the solicitation for an opinion will trigger that need for a “I-get-to-talk-about-myself” high.

Extra Bonus: Use something you both have in common. Kids. A love of baseball. Whatever it is — make that personal connection first. The person will be less likely to quickly file away the email for later.

Pick an Urgent Subject Line

Busy people naturally start prioritizing emails, and sometimes they won’t even open the email to do so. They’ll quickly glance at the subject line. So, if you want a fast response from these people, you can just imagine how important the subject line is. If you need tips on how to do this, I highly recommend Aaron’s advice on how to make your subject line stand out How To Make Your Email Message Stand Out In A Cluttered Inbox Have you ever sent an email you felt was important only to be answered many days later, or worse forgotten about? Granted, sometimes it’s out of your control, but there are things you can do... Read More in a cluttered inbox.



The bottom line is this: If you need a response right away, then why isn’t your subject line preceded by “IMPORTANT:” or “URGENT:” ?  There’s nothing wrong with doing this, and it’s actually helpful for busy people who use such subject lines as a visual indicator of what to attack first in the email inbox. Just don’t do it over silly, unimportant issues, or you’ll become the “boy who cried wolf”, and your emails will eventually be completely ignored!

Keep It Short and Sweet

This is the part of the article where I get hypocritical. The guy who writes 2000 word articles is going to tell US to keep it short and sweet?  Yup. That’s exactly what I”m going to do. We’re talking emails here, and here’s the lesson that Mr. Wordy here learned the first year on his new job: PILE.  It’s an acronym that I just came up with. It stands for People Ignore Long Emails.

After about six months of people ignoring my long, elaborate emails, I tried something new. I started writing very, very brief emails that only stated the point. I didn’t provide extra details, but at the end of the emails I offered to provide more information if they wanted it.



I started culling my emails down. When I thought they were short enough, I went through and cut some more. You have to ask yourself, is this line just superfluous? Are you sharing information for the sake of letting people know  how much you know — or does it not really matter to the issue at hand? Cut down the words. Get to the point quickly. When I started doing this, I noticed the response rate skyrocket. If you can pare down your email to a single line — odds are pretty good you’ll get an immediate response.

Bribe Them

If we’re going to be honest here, then you’ve got to admit that by their nature, humans are a self-serving bunch. When people see that there might be “something in it” for them, they feel more compelled to take action. You can take advantage of this in an email by closing your email with something like, “So, get back to me with a good time when you can talk about it over a cup of coffee – on me!”

A free cup of coffee just for hitting the reply button? That’s good incentive. And if the issue is even more important – say, you’re trying to sell something or gain a new client – go ahead and offer to buy lunch. That small investment will be well worth it. People love a free lunch.

Involve a Second Party

If you’ve emailed someone a few times, you’ve tried all of the tactics listed above, and you still aren’t getting any responses, then it’s time to pull out the big guns. I usually reserve these last two tactics for people who chronically ignore emails. The first “big gun” approach is to pull in someone who may be related to the situation. This might be your boss, or an additional person that you’re working with on the project that’s being held up because the person isn’t answering your email.


This isn’t something that you want to do on the first, second, or even the third email. However, if you’re being blatantly ignored, then write one more polite email, and just cc an involved person. If it’s someone higher up, like your boss, and the other person knows they are in a position of authority, they’ll be quick to respond. Out of all of the chronic ignorers that I’ve dealt with through the years, this “cc” approach prompts a response 99 percent of the time. There is something about having an audience that transforms the dialogue and suddenly makes it a higher priority.

Consistently Issue Reminders

If you’ve ever seen the movie Shawshank Redemption, or read the novella written by Stephen King, then you might recall the part where Andy Dufresne sends one letter every single week to the State Senate, asking for money for a prison library. After receiving a few hundred dollars and a donation of books, Andy then starts mailing two letters a week asking for even more money.

The point to the story is that persistence works. Call it annoying, aggravating, or irritating — but if you really, really need an answer to something important, consistently asking the person politely whether they received your last email will have one of two desired effects. It will prompt the person to dig through their inbox in search of the email you’re talking about, or it will make them realize that the only way to make you go away is to respond to your email. This is clearly a last resort solution, but it’s also a solution that works.

What techniques do you use to get a faster response to your emails? What works for you? Share your own tips and advice in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Overwhelmed Businessman (Shutterstock), Giving a Speech (Shutterstock), Important Sign (Shutterstock), Point to Point (Shutterstock), Point to Point (Shutterstock).

Related topics: Email Tips, Writing Tips.

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  1. Tony
    November 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    There have been times when a department head want to receive an "update" on a project that can easily become wordy, but doesn't have the time for a face-to-face. I've often wondered if there is a way to do a summary in the body with a "see more" kind of hyperlink within the text to expand the message... something like you might find when reviewing comments following an article [like this one]... any ideas?

    • Ryan Dube
      November 14, 2013 at 1:08 am

      The only thing I can think of is to actually write up a document with all of the details, and save the document on some shared network location. Then at the end of your brief email, you can link to that shared document and note that more details can be found there?

      This if course assumes you're working within an environment where there's such a shared network location. Although, I suppose outside of such an environment, there's always Dropbox, or some other cloud location.

  2. Anthony
    November 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I think your "Keep It Short and Sweet" section is the key one. I've seen too many emails from colleagues where I have known the problem being described, yet from the hurried or just poorly worded email I could barely recognise it! Spend the time writing a clear and concise email, and then either add the details as a post script, or offer to add them if required.

    The easier you make it for people to read and understand your email, the more likely they'll bother to respond - and they might even appreciate your effort!

  3. HildyJ
    November 12, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I'd add "put it in the subject". For example: "[Reply Needed] Please review this invoice and approve if correct"

    • Ryan Dube
      November 14, 2013 at 1:05 am

      This is good point. I've received emails like that from people and am always quick to respond because I figure it must be pretty important to place that in the subject line. Now I wonder why I never thought to do that when sending my own emails!

  4. Peter E
    November 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I use most of your tips in this article when emailing people.

    couple more tips from me:

    help the recipient to prioritise; give them a realistic and reasonable time scale for a response/completion. However, do not make it too far in the future or it'll get immediately filed under 'not important/not urgent' and might take a very long time for a reply.
    busy people appreciate honest 'back stop' time limits (ideally around a few days to a week, depending on what's required of course). back stop time limits are time limits that don't have ridiculous amounts of buffer time built in for you to action your part.

    Secondly, I've found the best way to make it personal and get some investment from the addressee, is to send the email, wait sufficient time for them to have read it (30 mins/1 hour) then phone them up and speak to them directly, opening with "hi, just calling regarding the email I sent you earlier about..."

    this is a great way to give someone a heads up and some background info before you speak to them about an issue whilst giving them an easy way to send you the info by just hitting 'reply'

    • Ryan Dube
      November 14, 2013 at 1:04 am

      Great tips Peter. I especially like the phone-call follow-up. I never thought of trying that, but it makes sense to give folks some time to think about the topic before "surprising" them with a phone call. Great idea.

      • Colin
        August 3, 2016 at 1:07 pm

        "wait sufficient time for them to have read it (30 mins/1 hour)" - Seriously? 30mins/I hour? First, this assumes the person will be at their desk and there to receive it; second, even if they are it assumes they will not be doing something else at the time.

  5. Wibi
    November 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    Also a last resort solution, if nothing else helps: You can send an Email to the boss/or colleague of the person who will not answer and ask him if that person is on holidays or ill or otherwise not capable of answering emails.. :) You will not be popular but it sure works.

    • me
      November 13, 2013 at 4:08 am

      i second this.... some people just need a kick right to their butt to do their job.....

    • Ryan Dube
      November 14, 2013 at 1:03 am

      I agree - and I've done this before (rarely), but I'm curious, how soon do you feel this "last resort" should be used? After they've ignored your 3rd or 4th email, or do you not even wait that long?