How to Get Busy People to Answer You

In business, there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything. This certainly extends to asking for favors or any other kind of help from someone who is busy and less likely to answer every single piece of email they get. Whether this is a client, a potential client, or simply one of your personal heroes whose brain you’d like to pick, there is a way to make a request of them that will get them to happily reply.

Likewise, there’s a way to make requests that will get you ignored forever. We’re going to explore how to do things the right way, so that neither you nor your busy recipient will be wasting any valuable time.

Don’t Ask Bad Questions

Many people say there’s no such thing as a bad question, but I say that’s a lie. If it’s something that is frivolous, impersonal, or that could be answered by a five-second search on Google, it’s a bad question to ask someone who has a limited amount of time.


(Image source: Oberazzi)

One thing I like to do, if I have a pressing, work-related question, is to find a popular book on the subject at the library, check it out, and read it. I take plenty of notes on all the possible answers given in the book, and usually I can find the answer to my question in short order. If not, I can either choose to read one or two more books on the subject until I’m satisfied, or I can send a quick note to someone I know will have the answer, making sure to explain that I’ve already attempted to find it on my own.

People, especially busy people, appreciate initiative (why wouldn’t they, being so busy all the time?), and the fact that you haven’t simply come to them with a dumb, generic question will usually delight them and make them more interested in helping you out.

Be Considerate Of Their Time

Let’s face it: we’re all busy. If you’re a working professional, you are inundated with a deluge of emails, voice mails, texts, social media messages, blog posts, and so on. Not to mention interactions with the real people in your life and all of the tasks, large and small, that have to get done. Often, people are busy simply attempting to multitask their lives, not to mention their work.


(Image source: zev)

Be aware of what’s going on in your intended recipient’s life before you pose your question. If possible, research them a little bit. Do they have a family? Are they currently observing any kind of holiday or taking a vacation? Are they in “work mode,” “family mode,” or “leave-me-alone mode?”

Finding out the current situation of your busy person will give you valuable information about how you should phrase your question, and when you can best expect a positive response.

Work On The Question

If you absolutely can’t avoid asking a question in the middle of a person’s busiest time of day, make sure you word it so that they can devote the least amount of brain power to their answer as possible. Simple, fill in the blank answers, or yes/no questions are the best.

Play with different formats, and if appropriate, consider a shorter delivery method, like a tweet or a Facebook post rather than an email.

Try To Guess Their Answer

By this, I don’t mean attempt to answer the question yourself. There’s no point in asking it in that case. I mean that you should try to guess the way in which they will answer you. Before you send that email, tweet, or Facebook message, think of the likely response you will get. How does the language sound? Is it in simple terms?

Try to answer a similarly worded question yourself first. If it’s too difficult for you to answer quickly, it’s too long or complicated and you need to change it.

Make It Super Easy

Again, make it easy for people to answer your questions. Make them short, easy, and, if you can, entertaining. Busy people are human too, and sometimes a splash of humor is just what they need to pick them up and help them get through their hectic day.

And remember that not every question in your email has to be strictly work related. Engaging people casually, not just professionally, is what builds real relationships that last.

If they have a spouse or children, ask about them. If you know they’re working on an exciting project or are working on their graduate degree, ask how it’s going. No matter how busy they are, everyone will be more likely to remember the person who took the time to ask them a simple, human question about their lives.

Give People A Directive

Calls to action aren’t just for websites and marketing materials. Everyone appreciates knowing what is required of them, and busy people appreciate it more than most. Don’t ask vague, open-ended question without giving directions on what, specifically, you want in terms of a response.


(Image source: Fabrizio Sciami)

Tell them to do something, anything – click here, watch this, reply with your top 3 ideas, et cetera.

It’s not condescending or manipulative to have a call to action in your emails. On the contrary, you alleviate people’s stress and save them the mental energy of figuring out how to reply. As a result, your request is much more likely to get a response, instead of a short trip to the trash bin.

In Conclusion

Remember, if you do everything right and still fail to get a response, you shouldn’t take it personally. Most likely the person was simply too wrapped up in their lives and responsibilities that they couldn’t get to your request. It’s likely nothing personal, and most people will appreciate it if you simply try again, rather than vanish.

If you just disappear, it sends the message that you weren’t really looking to make a meaningful exchange with the person in the first place. Don’t come off like an opportunist – be persistent and respectful, and you may find that busy people will start carving out time to approach you with requests, rather than the other way around.

Author:

Addison is the author of Food Identities, a blog that explores the crossroads of food, design, and culture. She's written some things, designed other things, and eaten a whole lot of food.

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