Rules For Email
By reading this page, you will learn how to get what you want from your emails: responses and potentially even actions that benefit you!
1. Perfect the subject line.
- “People are more likely to read emails with subject lines that create curiosity or provide utility. When people aren’t busy, they’re drawn in by subject lines that intrigue them. But when they’re busy, curiosity fades in importance; the emails that get read are the ones with practical subject lines.”
2. Tell them why you chose them.
3. Show that you’ve done your homework.
- “It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds. … Explicitly state what you’ve done to get answers or help yourself.” (Tim Ferris, 5 Tips for E-mailing Busy People)
4. Highlight uncommon commonalities.
5. Make your request specific, and keep it short and sweet.
6. Express gratitude.
- “My least favorite emails made demands instead of expressing appreciation.”
Additional Rules by Prof. Scott Kuban
7. Ask Don’t Tell.
- Related to 5 & 6 above, realize that most emails are asking for a favor, so remember to ask nicely. All too often, requests are made as statements that can come off as demands or orders. I don’t work for you. (Emails to an employee may ignore this rule.)
8. Avoid informality.
- When emailing someone that is not your friend, use a more formal and polite tone, and avoid texting shorthand. Let the professor, boss, potential mentor, sales contact, etc., say “call me <firstname>” (or equivalent) if they want to be more informal. You can also take cues from how they sign their email to you. If in doubt, formal is always safer than informal.
9. Remember that email is largely someone else’s to-do list for your life and treat it accordingly.
“[Professors] Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
1. It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
2. It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
3. Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.”
“As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.
Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response. For example, the following e-mail would likely not generate a reply with many of the famous names at the Institute:
Hi professor. I’d love to stop by sometime to talk about <topic X>. Are you available?
Responding to this message requires too much work (“Are you available?” is too vague to be answered quickly). Also, there’s no attempt to argue that this chat is worth the professor’s time. With these critiques in mind, here’s a version of the same message that would be more likely to generate a reply:
Hi professor. I’m working on a project similar to <topic X> with my advisor, <professor Y> Is it okay if l stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail and see if it might complement your current project?
Unlike the first message, this one makes a clear case for why this meeting makes sense and minimizes the effort needed from the receiver to respond.”
Prof. Kuban Note: While professors often give students in their classes grace on these rules, it is still wise to follow them as most student emails are asking for a favor or otherwise desirable outcome (e.g., get in a wait-listed class, turn in an assignment late, excuse an absence, receive a better grade) from the professor.
Rules for cold emails by Prof. Adam Grant
Don’t ask strangers to…
1. Acknowledge that they received your email.
2. Share your content on social media.
3. Provide feedback on something you’ve created.
4. Jump on a call today or tomorrow.
5. Name some times for a meeting.
6. Introduce you to specific people in their networks.