THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- The email: Fives rules to get a good answer

Most people who are on top of their game respond to most emails within 48 hours. However, some emails are so terribly written that it's actually impossible to send an answer. Other emails are so terribly written that the amount of time it would take to figure out what to answer is simply not worth it.

In order to get the response you're looking for, you need to ask a very good question. Here are five ways to do that:

1. Don't send an essay. Your whole email should not exceed five sentences. If you need to give the person a lot of information in order to help you, send them an email asking if you can send more information. But here's a tip: You're most likely to get a response if you don't need to send more information. A direct question is easiest to answer, and it doesn't take a lot of space.

2. Don't be vague. Here's an interesting question: "Is there a god?" But it's not a question for email, because any answer would be very long and philosophical. For this question, go buy a book. But that's not even the worst type of offender. At least "Is there a god" is a short, direct question. Emails that call loudest for the delete button are those with vague requests for help followed by a long-winded personal introduction and no real question. Test yourself: Write a concise subject line, and then go back to the email and delete anything not directly related to that.

3. Do heavy lifting in the self-knowledge arena before you ask for help. Most people who are lost have huge questions: Should I start a company? Should I quit my job? If you are really, really lost, don't approach someone who is really, really in demand. You need a specific, high-payoff question for the person you are approaching. Which means you really need ask a lot of questions to get to the good question.

For example, the question, Should I quit my job? is usually about Does my job really suck? or Could I get a better job? And then there are specific questions related to that. Once you drill down to the core question, for example, is Phoenix a good place to raise kids or should I get a job somewhere else before I have kids? Then you can ask a child-rearing expert who lives in Phoenix. But no one can answer the broad question, should I quit my job?

4. Ask the right question of the right person. The best type of question is a very specific question in the exact sweet spot of this person's expertise. I know this because I field a lot of terrible career questions.

Someone I barely know recently asked me what she should get her boyfriend for a gift. (Of course, I have no idea.) But a good question for me would be what to get her boyfriend a gift if her boyfriend is her boss and there is company-wide public gift-giving. That's an office politics question, and it's specific. The answer? Buy a gift certificate to a bookstore. It's impersonal, appropriate, and it'll throw everyone off.

5. Admit when you don't have a good question. It's hard to ask a question that meets all this criteria. That's because good questions come from good thinking, and it's easier to fire off an email than to sit on your sofa and think. But most answers to most tough questions are either in your heart or in Google. So try those avenues first. Then ask an expert. Because by the time you've exhausted your heart and Google, you'll probably ask a good question, because you'll an expert as well.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.