08/04/2014 09:46 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

How to Connect With Busy People


As a university department chair, professor, editor, author, and board member, I hear this question a lot: "How come my job inquiries (writing submissions, information requests, proposals, reports, etc.) so often go unanswered?"

Sometimes it's the luck of the draw, but sometimes the request is made ineffectively, wasting the time of someone who doesn't have much to waste.

Here are some tips for successfully reaching busy people:

  • Get right to the point. Colleagues of mine move on if they can't tell in two or three sentences why someone has emailed them. When I look at an email and see several paragraphs of text ahead, I set it aside and go on to shorter emails I can deal with immediately. I'm by no means alone in this habit. Same with calls: get to the point, don't tell your life story or over-explain.
  • Expect a delay. People who work a lot must set priorities. Mine is students first: it's my job and my joy to give them most of my attention, and I will reply to their communiques before anyone else's. Try to find out the priorities of whomever you want to get in touch with, and don't take it personally if they don't respond right away.
  • Don't send a dozen emails that each contain one question. Either put it all together in one or see if you can find some of the answers yourself.
  • If you email someone a link to a webpage, say up front what its relevance is, briefly.
  • If you write a blog or article online, please edit it for clarity, and don't give the reader long solid blocks of text to wade through. Most readers won't. Same with memos and reports.
  • Don't expect a long reply to your long email, or even to your short one, from someone who might well have to read and respond to hundreds of emails a day plus calls and meetings. My schedule isn't quite that bad yet, but the person I report to at work told me how much urgent email she gets in an hour and it made my hair stand up.
  • Don't hit REPLY ALL to tell a thousand people that you're thanking Jack and Jill for bringing the pail of water up the hill. REPLY ALL is for when a group of people really need to know something. Use REPLY instead.
  • If you email a group and put their names in the To: field, there's a good chance a REPLY ALLer will start a cascade of useless email replies. You might also get a complaint from someone who didn't give you permission to release their email address to an entire group. Put recipient names into the BCC: field instead and put your own name in the To:.
  • If you text someone you don't normally text, say who you are. When a "How are you?" or "Let's talk soon" text appears on my phone without a name I won't text back to find out who sent it.
  • Use an appropriate tone. For instance, don't start a job inquiry, information request, or writing submission email with something cheeky like, "How's it hangin'?" or "Hey Guru Dood." When I receive these I ignore them.
  • Study after study all over the world shows that in writing and in speech, the tone that most irritates most quickly is the tone of complaining. There is probably no more counter-productive tone, personally or professionally. If you have to be critical, do it with tact and respect rather than accusation. Additionally,
  • Know the difference between using irony and satire and being hostile or mean. If you don't understand this difference, you will accuse writers of satire of being mean and you will be mean or accusatory yourself when you think you're being honest.
  • Respect people's titles; don't assume you're on a first name basis with everyone you call or email, especially for the very first time. The U.S. is fairly informal about this, but in many parts of the world, and even here, failure to use a title can be read as lack of respect and inattention to detail.
  • Don't bother with blanket emails modified to seem personalized. Not long ago I got one inviting me by name to apply for a position as dean of a university whose highly mechanized educational philosophy could never be confused with my own. It was obvious that the recruiter knew nothing about my background, or even that I wasn't seeking a job. (It's always smart to find out something about people you contact. I often get asked, "How's your book doing?" I've perpetrated eight books: which one do you mean?)
  • About applying for a job: Don't follow up over and over. The squeaky wheel gets ignored. A few times is enough. Some guy I spoke with once before now calls me every month to ask if he can present his unique world-saving program where I work. He has made my list of annoying people to avoid.
  • More about job applications: Don't make contact like a machine would. "The purpose of this email is to inquire as to whether a position is available..." and I'm already dozing. I landed a teaching position by emailing the department chair to declare in the first sentence that they needed me. I then told a brief story about Lugh, the Irish folkloric figure who talked his way into fabled Tara on the strength of the many things he could do. This won't work for every situation, but I landed the job.
  • One more thing about applying for a job: Don't apply for one you clearly aren't qualified for. It's a waste of time and it irritates whomever reads your application. Entry level is different, but for positions needing extensive experience, don't bother if you don't have it. In my department we put wisdom traditions from around the world into conversation with ecopsychology and depth psychology. "I teach statistics but do yoga on the side" won't cut it.
  • Don't expect anybody to look things up for you. That's what search engines are for. Do your homework first, and then ask for help when you need it.
  • Finally, don't email questions that couldn't possibly be answered by email: "What do you think of God?" "Where should standardized testing go next?" "What do you predict will happen over the next ten years?" Although someone of my temperament might reply anyway: "Needs to make up with Asherah." "Away." "3,650 sunrises and 3,650 sunsets. Go outside and appreciate some of them."

Cheers and success in contacting whomever you need to contact. The health of a culture's flesh depends on the membrane-crossing circulation of feedback loops, thoughtful requests, introductions, and new ideas.