GQ (South Africa)

How to use psychology to get people to answer your emails

Sometimes people just need a nudge in the right direction

- Sophia Epstein

to whom it may concern: writing emails is painful. It’s bad enough finding the time to write them, but once you’ve done it, checked it and removed all the excess exclamatio­n marks, you’re still not guaranteed a reply.

There’s some good news though: psychology can help. By factoring in a bit of behavioura­l science, and tweaking your emails to match, you can give your recipients a little more encouragem­ent to respond. It’s not about tricking people with mind games – that’s a bit sinister. But these psychologi­cal tactics could edge your next email into RE: territory.

First, make it easy to respond. You’ve heard that before, we know, but chances are you haven’t been taking it far enough. ‘The strongest effect you’ll have, in any environmen­t, is by making things easier,’ says Max Mawby, head of behavioura­l science at fintech startup Plum. Your words should be easy to understand, your recipient should be able to figure out what you want them to do, and what you’re asking for should be easy to accomplish.

Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler won the prize for his work that was centered around that concept. ‘If you want to get people to do something, make it easy. Remove the obstacles,’ he wrote in his book Nudge. It sounds simple, but the best advice usually is.

‘At the end of the email you just put exactly what you want the person to do,’ says Mawby. ‘Don’t dress it up at all.’ Try to incite as little thinking as possible. People often assume that someone will want to know everything there is to know about something before making a decision – but that can get overwhelmi­ng. ‘Informatio­n overload does not lead to people doing things,’ says Mawby, ‘it actually reduces the likelihood that people will take action.’ The easier, the better.

In the few sentences you do write, make sure your request is the bit that gets their attention. That’s the “attractive” part. Our brains find it much easier to complete a task if we’ve got something to aim for.

Next, make it more social. Humans are rigged up to be influenced by what other people say and do. ‘We all keep very, very precise ledgers in our brains of things that people have done for us,’ Mawby says. ‘And when someone does something for us, we feel compelled to do something for them in return.’ This is the concept of reciprocit­y.

If you’re sending an email to a prospectiv­e employer, for example, don’t just ask for a job, give them something first. Share a marketing idea, a design suggestion or a way to improve the company’s code

– at the very least, show you’ve invested some time and energy into researchin­g the brand. ‘This may seem quite basic, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother,’ says Clare O’connor, the editorial director of dating app Bumble. ‘Showing you’ve done at least a modicum of research really helps ensure you’ll get a reply.’

Just being polite on a basic level also helps, says Mai-chi Vu, a product designer at email plug-in Boomerang, which uses machine learning to calculate the likelihood you’ll get a response. The company’s algorithms factor in politeness levels. ‘Emails on the politer side get higher response rates,’ she says.

Reciprocit­y comes in here too.

Thanks in advance was the most effective sign-off, with a 66% response rate, beating Thanks (63%) and Thank you (58%) by a slim margin, but totally annihilati­ng the classics like Best (51%). Perhaps we’ve subconscio­usly realised that no one is actually “sincerely” sending their “best wishes” or “kind regards”, but still feel obliged to complete a task we’ve already been thanked for.

It all comes back to making things easy. But Mawby also let us in on a little trick. ‘This is one to use sparingly,’ he says, or it’ll become more annoying than clever. ‘You can arrange your email so that if the person doesn’t do anything, something good happens.’

People are intrinsica­lly lazy, so they often just go with the default option. ‘But do you even need a response?’ asks Mawby. ‘Set it so that the default, if they don’t do anything, is that you go ahead.’ Email me if you aren’t convinced. If I don’t hear anything, I’ll assume you’re satisfied. Sound good? Thanks in advance. »

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