Do you ever get email requests that make you not want to help the person sending it?

Well, I was surprised to receive just such an email from someone who has decades of work experience. Shouldn’t he have known better?

It made me think. None of us starts out with the intention of writing an email that doesn't work, but it can happen… to all of us. And when it’s me, I would want to know how to improve – how to remove as many barriers to getting to “yes” as possible.

That’s why I’m going to share that email along with some observations on what would have landed better, at least for me.

Here’s what he wrote:

I hope you had a good start in 2015 – I believe this is going to be an exciting year full of opportunities!

As you may have noticed, I have been very busy and I have lots of ideas moving forward which I would like to share with you.

I’d also like to get some advice on how best to turn my plans into reality.

I would be available to catch up
Wed after 4pm
Thu between 12.30 and 2.30pm
Fri before 1pm

I look forward to hearing from you,

Here’s what it made me think:

Good start – positive and optimistic! And the email looks brief. I’m liking this…

Hmmm, no, I didn’t notice what you’ve been doing, because I’m busy too. And a quick look on LinkedIn doesn't shed any light…

Oh, and he wants something from me. But he’s all about himself. How many times has he said “I” or “my” – it feels like a hundred…

Another “I”! He hasn’t sold me on catching up, yet is giving me times that work for him… that’s pretty cheeky and presumptuous.

Not the worst ending but by now, I’m not in a mood to say yes, or even to reply at all. And I don’t know what I would say if I did.

In the end, I did reply – mostly because I feel that if someone has asked me for help, no matter how poorly or well worded, and if I can help, then I should.  But not everyone will do the same.

Here’s one way he could have worded the email instead:

Hope you had a good start in 2015 – I believe this is going to be an exciting year full of opportunities!

Since we last met at the charity dinner, I’ve been busy developing several ideas for XYZ. Things are now at a point where it would be helpful to get input from some experienced professionals and I thought of you!

Also, I know that you’ve been very busy with your new venture, which I would love to hear more about. There’s one idea in particular that you might be interested in.

If you’re amenable, I would appreciate the opportunity to catch up over a coffee at your convenience. In case it suits your schedule, I happen to be in town on:

Wed after 4pm
Thu between 12.30 and 2.30pm
Fri before 1pm

I look forward to hearing what might work for you.

And here’s an email request that worked for me – it’s one I sent to someone more senior who I’ve kept in touch with periodically over the years, and yes I did get the meeting:

Hope all is well, and have enjoyed reading about your new charity competition earlier this year – great idea put into action.

Have been making progress on the project we discussed in January and getting ready for a pilot in mid-November, and launch in late Feb.  It is now called XYZ and is much more focused (and not “trying to save the world”, yet still has room to evolve/morph).

May I come see you and update you either in NY or London?  Your wisdom appreciated.

7 Mistakes To Avoid When Asking For Help

So to summarize, when you’re writing that email asking for help, here are seven mistakes you don’t want to make:

  1. Use the words “I/my” too often – instead, write it with the recipient in mind. It’s not all about you!
  1. Assume they know what you’ve been up to – instead, provide a brief reference to remind them or clue them in.
  1. Leave it to the goodness of their hearts to say yes – instead, make it relevant to the person and ideally give them a compelling reason to meet. While there are some “Mother Theresa” types out there, you’ll get better results if you include a “WIIFY” – as in “What’s in it for You”. What could the person learn or gain from spending time with you?
  1. Dress a favor up as a “WIIFY” – If it’s an out and out favor and there’s no “WIIFY”, just say so (“I’ve got a favor to ask”) and express gratitude. And remember to reciprocate in the future.
  1. Dictate times or otherwise imply that it’s your schedule that matters, which presumes the person is willing to meet in the first place – instead, suggest possibilities.
  1. Make it obviously a “form letter” if you can help it – instead, have a core letter that you can “top and tail” to make it personalized. Sometimes this won’t be possible, but if you’ve stayed away from points 1-5, then people likely will be okay with it.
  1. Go it alone – if it’s a really important request, then have someone else read it and tell you how it comes across. Especially if there are cultural or language differences involved. When I was first transferred to London from the US, I had a British colleague read the emails and letters to British clients to ensure I was not inadvertently offending them with my American version of English. That saved me several times!

So, what’s your advice on how to ask for help and writing emails that work?

For more advice on emails, I recommend: