How To Write An Email (or Message) People Will Read And Respond To

Ed Zitron 6 min read
How To Write An Email (or Message) People Will Read And Respond To

I have written a lot of stuff recently that’s more on the instructional side, and I promise you that this isn’t going to become a Substack that’s entirely how-to guides. I also realize that the content has begun to oscillate rapidly between cultural analysis and How To Do Stuff, but hey, it’s free, right? If I charged money I’d feel worse about it.

Anyway, I was thinking recently about how my job works, and how much of it really comes down to writing an email that makes someone do something. It’s definitely reductive to say that’s the only thing, but it is also remarkable how often the process comes down to whether I can get someone to do something based on an email or a DM.

Which is why I’m writing a newsletter that’s basically all about how that works, and what it means. Some of this may seem obvious, but based on 99% of PR pitches I see, it isn’t well-known.

Why Am I Sending This Email? And Why Am I Sending It To This Person?

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Oftentimes emails are sent with little regard for their purpose or existence. Sometimes it may seem like they have a point - a PR person sending a “story idea” that’s barely if at all related to you, for example - but doesn’t seem to have that logic flowing through it. The very soul of what you write should be dedicated to actually doing something, and everything in it should be part of that purpose.

Furthermore, the email needs to actually apply to the person it’s going to. This means you should research them and understand not only who they are and what they do, but how you can make the email you’re sending applicable to them.

For example, a bad PR pitch is usually bad because its purpose - “getting a story” - is fairly vague, and doesn’t actually connect to the content of the email itself. A good PR pitch is written and delivered to someone that it’s applicable to, and actually does stuff to get that thing to happen. In essence, you’re not “getting a story,” you’re trying to get the person in question to talk to the client, click a link, read a thing and take action upon it - basically making it easy to do the thing you want so that the other thing you want will happen.

If I’m pitching a reporter with the intention of getting them to cover something, I’ll send them a short email saying what it’s about, and end it with a clear call to action - either here’re the assets for the story (assuming they’re a reporter that would write a story based off of an email, some quotes and images, which does happen in specific industry press), or the same thing but it ends with the assets (because they will need them) and a question of when they’re free to talk to the client in question.

You want to make it clear what you want and give them - the person reading it specifically - everything they need to ideally make the decision you want.

This applies to basically any situation you find yourself in where you need something. You want to be writing something for the person reading it that’s applicable to them with clear intentions.

What Do I Want? And What Do They Need To Know?

Say you’re complaining to a hotel manager that you had a bad stay. The temptation that a lot of people have is to go nuts with threats and nasty words to scare them. That doesn’t motivate anyone! What you want to do is lay out exactly what happened, the consequences of what happened, and what you would like in return. You can even layer on that you’re unhappy, and that you won’t be staying there again unless there’s compensation. The important thing is that the email isn’t simply a screed of anger and poison - even if you feel that way, the person in question likely didn’t personally do the bad thing, and even if they weren’t helpful at the time, being persuasive and illustrative is a hundred times more effective (and moral) than hurting someone.

In the realm of PR, writing an email to someone about something should generally come down to some basic things:

  1. What’s the thing?
  2. What’s new about it?
  3. Why is it relevant to me?
  4. What do I need to do to either learn more or potentially take action on this?

Say I’m pitching Gumbus.AI raised $40 million in a Series B. They’re a company that uses AI to tell you the best vendor for enterprise clients. Most likely a reporter wants to know, on receiving this email, who funded them, when the news is going out, what the company does (in short, but also not so short that it makes no sense) and why it matters to them. The latter part can come simply from good targeting - reading their stuff and understanding what they cover - so you can simply write an email that endearingly tells them there is news, it’s happening here, the news is this, and this is the person to talk to.

It may be a little simpler - say, a reporter you read a lot of that you want to grab coffee with, or learn exactly what they want to hear about. Make the email short and sweet - hey, I read a bunch of your stuff, I know you write about XYZ, but would you wanna grab coffee and chat about what you care about in detail? Or perhaps it’s a simple “are you interested in this kinda thing, I read your stuff and it’s on the edge I think?”

In many cases with reporters it’s not exactly the thing to say “I want you to write about this story,” mostly because their evaluation of whether something is a story doesn’t really come from just an email. What you’re doing is giving them the tools to make that evaluation themselves, and usually them taking a call is a sign that yes, there is potentially a story that they need to investigate themselves.

If you’re trying to talk to an investor about investing, most likely your short email should include the metrics that would matter to an investor - total addressable market, revenue (unless you don’t want to share it in a quick email), growth % over X amount of time, unique things about you and, crucially, a very clear ask at the end - hey, can we grab 30 minutes with you? Can I send you my deck?

You don’t need to include everything, you need to include what’s necessary.

Be Useful (And Easy)

Whatever it is you’re asking, make it the easiest thing in the world to actually deal with. Want them to talk to you for 30 minutes? Give them your calendar availability, or a Calendly link so they can pick one themselves. Need them to speak to a client? Be ready to respond and loop in said client, and please god, respond quickly. Want them to write a story about something based off of your email? Include everything they’d need - pricing, screenshots or images, facts and figures - and make it super easy to read, like in a Google Doc.

Pitching a story that you want to write for an outlet? Make it a tight 4 or 5 bullet point thing that clearly illustrates a narrative, how you’d get the story done, and how much time it’d take, and make it clear you’re available.

Sending a proposal? Lay out exactly what you’d do, who you’ve done it for, how much it’d cost and when you can start.

People who are very good at getting people to do stuff do not do so using black magic. They do so by offering people as quick and easy a decision as possible, directly aligning it with their interests and making the process of saying “yes” as easy to say as “no” as possible. And they accept a “no” gracefully - any response is usually a “thanks for reading anyway” or, if it remotely challenges it, is similarly quick and easy to read and address or dismiss.

A lot of people treat the very basics of communication as a monolith. They want to cram every slice of information into it as possible, and write what they believe is a “compelling email,” when most compelling things aren’t based on the linguistics involved but on the actual content of the words the person is reading.

Obfuscating fact with fanciful language is a great way to get ignored. Writing a huge amount of text is a great way to get ignored. Anything you do that will make the person say “nah, I’m not reading that” is useless to you.

Pragmatism is always your goal. Always. And even if it’s a no, you always want to get your emails or messages read and responded to. If that’s not the goal, what the hell is?

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