I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.
Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.
Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.
The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).
Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t. The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.
Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.
(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)
Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes. The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.