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Top tips on how to get a reply to your emails

February 20, 2018
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Some of my LSE students are pulling their hair out. A number of them are doing consultancies for various bits of thehow-i-feel-when-nobody-replies-to-my-emails aid industry. They have composed their requests for interviews, links, suggestions etc, hit ‘send’ and then…. Silence.

So short of doorstepping the unresponsive (which will probably get you arrested), how can you maximise your chances of getting a reply to your email? I tweeted the FP2P hivemind and got dozens of replies, many from the kinds of people students are probably trying to contact. Here’s what they said:

Obvious but important:

Get the grammar and spelling right – it’s amazing how many emails I get with my name misspelt. That doesn’t make you feel like answering

Have a specific question. Don’t say “I am interested in development and am hoping you can help.” (Sarah Lucas)


Aim to be on the top of their morning email backlog, so hit send about 7.30am. Avoid weekends.


Strike the appropriate balance between informality and formality: ‘Dear Sir’ is likely to be OTT (and they will think it’s a roundrobin) but don’t go the ‘Hey, Bob’ route either – no first names if you’ve never met them! (Shabana Abbas, Sophia Murphy)

Get to the Point:

Get the ask in the subject line. “Request for interview from Financial Times.” (Alan Beattie, but then he does actually work for the FT – an alternative for students might be ‘Professor X suggested I get in touch’).

noreplyBrevity! If one has a lot to say, one should place it in an attachment or in the second iteration of emails. (Diane Coyle, Michael Clemens)

Don’t waffle about your values (Lesley King)

The Right Kind of Flattery:

“I have been deeply inspired by your seminal paper/work in …” (Dani Rodrik, presumably tongue in cheek)

If they are super busy, they will have a swiss cheese memory (lots of holes). Try “I will never forget your wise words, and your request to lean on you when the time came.” (Paul O’Brien)

Think about their constraints:

Don’t ask for a chat unless you really mean it. And then say how long you expect the interview to last (take a real estimate, then halve it!). They may find a skype call less disruptive (and easier to end) than a face to face meeting.

Use other channels in parallel:

‘Experience from my business research. Send letter then follow up email. Time email and mail to land Friday AM.’ (Wayne Diamond)

If your targets are active on social media, engage with them before sending an email – retweet their stuff or leave intelligent comments on their blogposts. Then you’ll have a better chance of name recognition (me).

And if all else fails:

Pretend to be a funder! Works for me (Nicholas Colloff, but then he is actually a funder)

And some things I wasn’t convinced by:

Don’t say you’re a student? Offer help? Try and incentivize them/convince them it is in their interests to reply? cross with computerPersonally, the ‘we were all students once’ sympathy card works better for me than ‘it’s your lucky day, you get to be interviewed by me.’

Also not convinced by ‘If the person they are trying to contact has a PA, approach the PA first for help.’ Isn’t a PA’s job to stop his boss saying yes to this kind of thing?

And here’s how the military do emails, according to the Harvard Business Review (ht Joshua Williams and Paul Niehaus)

Over to you – more tips please!





  1. Since I was not being wholly serious the first time!

    What works for me is a recommending person, The esteemed Duncan Green suggested… Specificity I am researching business development ecosystems in Uganda and know that you work in this field, can I have X of your time to ask you Y for Z reason. Having your help being appreciated.

    What does not work is the arbitrary foreshortening of one’s name, overt flattery – I might be a global thought leader but do not take that wholly seriously as an appellation – and long attachments that I am never going to have time to read!

  2. Keep it short (very short) and sweet. Make sure the subject line has the specific request in it (I get a lot of emails and delete many without reading them if they don’t look like something specifically for me). Flattery works with some, but I really don’t like it unless it’s clearly genuine. Make it look professional (structure, grammar, not too informal, no text speak). Name dropping a mutual friend’s name can help, especially as it injects guilt into things (it’s my background…guilt works better than flattery!). But most importantly – make sure it’s the right request to the right person. Do your homework and make sure you’re not just phishing. I can’t tell you how many requests for PhD supervision many of us get that say, ‘Dear Professor, I’ve looked at your website and know you’re the right person to supervise my PhD on mid-19th century land reform in China’. Um…no, I’m really not…

  3. I have a blog post on this coming out today too! I fully agree with everything Heather is saying, and I have also gotten the same questions that Duncan has. There seem to be many, many people sending networking emails these days and not getting answers. I’ve gotten a few samples of these emails, and I’m really quite struck by the informality and tone. I also can tell that many of these are ‘form’ emails that get sent to probably dozens of people without personalization. People really do want to know why you want to talk to them specifically!

    If I had to add anything important that isn’t in Duncan’s blog or in mine, it would be to make sure you’re writing to the right person. Sometimes people ask for informational interviews from people not working in their sector or regional area of interest. I think it’s really important to do the research and make sure that you’re trying to get an informational interview with someone with common areas of interest and with expertise that you want to develop. It’s a bit tricky to know who ‘the right person’ is because job titles are pretty broad, but I recommend trying to find blogs, articles, or reports written by someone to make sure you are writing to the right person.

  4. Some related advice for those who have tried to connect through LinkedIn:

    -Don’t expect your invitation to connect to be accepted if you have never met face-to-face with the person you wish to connect with.
    -this is especially the case if you don’t add any personal message beyond what LinkedIn generates automatically.
    -the direct message approach is better but be prompt if I reply (even if it has taken me weeks to respond).
    -if I agree to speak with you, keep your commitment; if you fail to connect over Skype/by phone and provide no explanation, you have lost your chance!
    -personal recommendations do help in my case.

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