In my business discussion group a fellow attendee asked for some advice. She said that the executive she’d booked to give a presentation at a future event seemed to be avoiding her. She was unable get him to answer a simple question and he hadn’t answered any of her messages and emails in months. She asked – is this normal behavior for him, or have I done something wrong?
We’ve probably all experienced it – we’ve had a boss, colleague or client who seems extremely overworked and invariably fails to answer emails, or return calls, or replies after days or weeks of waiting, sometimes without answering the pressing questions we need answered. It’s frustrating and it can be tempting to assume they don’t care or are incompetent in some way.
Perhaps you are that person yourself? I know that I am, or can be, overwhelmed at times.
Here’s a recent screenshot of my inbox. You probably think all those unread emails are spam – unfortunately not. Hiding amongst the spam and unsolicited cold sales contacts are significant messages it would actually make sense to address. And I will try get to the ones that really matter… eventually.
So, when my friend showed me the message she’d sent to this celebrated company founder, I immediately spotted the problem. Her message was several paragraphs long, and I had to scroll down to get to the meat of it – the vital questions she wanted answered. I counselled my friend to send a simple one-liner:
The Event is on [day] at [time] at [location]. Does that work for you?
She was worried that it was too abrupt, perhaps even rude, but – lo and behold – the executive got back to her within 15 minutes with a simple “ok” and a smiley face emoji.
It’s not rude, it’s realistic
The above example illustrates the problem. My friend was significantly less busy than the executive whose time she was trying to appropriate (if only for a minute to two). This meant she had time to chase up her enquiry, but the executive probably hadn’t even noticed her message, or had been put off reading it due to its length and complexity.
It wasn’t him being rude, just having trouble juggling all the mandatory aspects of his job with the “added extras” that the world would constantly hurl at him. Here’s another way to think of it. At any one time, I might be:
- Trying to secure finance from a major investor.
- Attempting to place a news story with a leading business journalist.
- Hoping to secure a keynote speaker for a launch event.
- Trying to complete a major distribution deal.
All these tasks are massively important, all of them necessitate a lot of calls, emails, and face to face meetings (even Zoom requires prep time). Crucially, all of them must be accomplished RIGHT NOW.
Meanwhile, phone calls and emails are piling up. Hence the catastrophic situation depicted above, where I had 757 unreturned phone calls and messages, and 147,606 unread emails. I know – how is that even possible?
Busy people don’t do these things intentionally. Busy people often do feel the pressure and guilt of letting unread messages pile up (even when most of them can be safely ignored). Busy people worry that they may be perceived as rude or indifferent, when there are several significant obstacles to keeping on top of this volume of enquiries:
- There simply isn’t the time to read through each message.
- It’s impossible to assign a priority when everything is labelled “urgent” or “important”
- I’m busy on something else when your urgent message arrives.
- I see the message, but simply have no time to give a measured response.
- Under my heavy workload, I simply forget that you messaged me at all.
True – life would be simpler if I could hire multiple assistants or a super-intelligent AI-driven app to respond for me, but the realities of the modern business environment don’t always allow for that. Especially while the most important business interactions require a personal touch.
However, all is not lost. There are ways to punch-through the wall of irrelevant, verbose, confused, or pointless communication that lands in my inbox every day. I’m going to offer my hard-won insights into the kind of communications that work for me, as well as those that don’t.
Generally, if you stick to the point, demonstrate that you’re offering value, rather than wasting your recipient’s time, and keep it concise, you’ll have a better chance of receiving a speedy reply. But here are some more specific pointers.
11 tips for effective communication with busy people
- Keep messages short and efficient and try to ask simple yes/no questions.
- Don’t ask several complex questions in one message, since this triggers the realization that a lot of mental energy must be devoted to giving multiple answers.
- In general, emails requiring a decision trigger the most avoidance, so try to simplify their decision-making process by concisely listing the pros and cons of each choice. Use bullet points to make your case in as few words as possible.
- Don’t get uppity if they don’t immediately reply to your message. For the reasons described above, it's almost certainly not personal. Instead, you can send them one or two reminders, politely and briefly reminding them that a response is outstanding.
- It’s okay to label an email as urgent or important if it really is time sensitive. Otherwise, avoid hyperbolic use of capitals, exclamation marks or “mark as important” email flags.
- Systems that require the recipient to acknowledge receipt tend to come across as overly needy or even passive-aggressive – please avoid doing this.
- Do any additional work or research yourself. Don’t make your executive Google for an event link – include it in the email (and double-check it’s the right one).
- Keep subject headers relevant and short (and again, free from exaggerated urgency)
- Don’t CC in their investor, co-founder or other authority – we’re wise to that trick!
- Don’t request more of their time than you absolutely need. Don’t ask for an hour’s face to face meeting when a 5-minute chat would do.
- Did I mention keeping it short?
And in case I haven’t hammered the point home had enough yet, here’s a fictional (yet typical) bad example, and a version which does the same thing, but would get a much quicker response.
Subject: URGENT!!! – Requires immediate response
CC: C-Suite Email Group
Not sure if you’re getting my emails but I’ve sent you several and heard nothing back. The expo in Stockholm is in less than six weeks now and we’ve not yet coordinated presentations or run through our product launch strategy. I have a host of questions to ask you. What are your main priorities? Do you have a list of delegates you’re targeting? Did you decide yet whether you want to do the morning or evening session?
The link to the schedule’s in my last email. Can I have a reply by end of play today so we can get all our ducks in a row?
What’s wrong with the above message?
- Passive-aggressive CC-ing of other executives
- Overly hysterical and vague subject header
- Large block of forbidding text.
- Multiple questions asked in one email.
- False urgency (six weeks isn’t necessarily “soon”)
- Event schedule link referred to but not included.
- Demand for a same-day reply.
So how could Martin have best obtained a response to his enquiry?
Subject: Meeting Re: Stockholm Expo
I see you have a gap in your calendar on Tuesday 14th November at 2pm. Can I book you for a 15-minute phone call about the Stockholm Expo?
Here’s the link to the schedule: link provided
What’s so good about this version? Well, it has a very precise subject header, keeps it brief and because the sender has a range of questions to ask, they have sensibly opted to ask for a brief face-to-face.
Martin has provided a link to the event schedule. He has been polite and hasn’t demanded a reply by a certain date (but the recipient will reply because there’s a very clear request for a meeting at a specified time). He's also been modest in his expectations (a short phone call, rather than a face to face.)
Leverage your natural empathy
Much of this will seem like common sense when you apply a little natural empathy to the situation. Even if they haven’t worked at an executive level or been the founder of a startup with 1000 tasks to accomplish at once, most people will have experience of a frenetically busy period in life, whether it's arranging a wedding, moving house, or just bringing up kids.
Use your own experiences of those challenging times to understand how difficult multi-tasking becomes when you’re constantly being bombarded with questions and communications and trying to perform triage on your to do list.
Follow the simple rules outlined above and busy folk like me will be enormously grateful. We’ll do our part to try to improve our efficiency and responsiveness if you show a little empathy when we sometimes fall short.