How to get what you want from a busy person – The Do’s and Don’ts that will make all the difference

I get a lot of emails both through my own website and via The Art House, the not-for-profit I help to run.  Having just spent a morning ploughing through lots of requests for all sorts of things, I started thinking of some handy tips to make YOUR message stand out from the others and get what you are asking for when you approach somebody.

Firstly, people generally want to help you, but have to balance this with their own priorities and commitments.  Even though my emails are nowhere near what many people deal with (I’m hardly Richard Branson – but then again I bet he has a PA!), I still find myself having to ‘triage’ requests.

It is pretty safe to assume anyone who is running a business, trading as an artist, performing or teaching is pretty darn busy.

These are some of the things I think people should & shouldn’t do when approaching somebody for help.  I’m assuming email contact because, well, that’s how you do it, right?


Put a clear, concise subject line that summarizes what your email is about

Busy folks often have multiple inboxes, or transfer emails to a ‘to do’ list (I use Googlemail’s tasks).  If your email is easy to identify from the subject line, it is more likely to stand out and get a response.

Keep it short

I will from time to time get an email of around 500 words, all in one paragraph with little structure, excitedly telling me about somebody’s project.  Or a 4 page handwritten letter with a full story of somebody’s life and journey.  These are of course lovely and interesting, but it’s hard to pick out what somebody wants from masses of text.

Busy people will generally switch off when they see lots to read, and move on to the next thing.  Nobody wants to spend all day reading emails, so respect people’s time and be concise.


Start off your email with a quick summary, then move on to more complicated explainations, or better still, keep the explainations for your response to their ‘yes’.

Also, use paragraphs and headings for longer text.  

Keep it positive

I’m always taken aback when people put themselves down or assume a refusal in a request – this comes across very negatively.  While we are on the subject……

Avoid assumptions

You know what they say about assumptions…. they are the mother of all F***ups!  


Show the person that you know who they are and what they do, mention their work or something you know about them – and use this to explain why you are approaching them in particular.  Keep it short & sweet, and be honest!

Show interest in the person you are contacting

I had an enquiry today wanting something, but saying ‘no thanks’ to joining my mailing list.  Guess what my response was?  Hmmm.  Remember that things need to flow both ways.

If somebody knows you, they’re more likely to help you

Seems so simple, doesn’t it!?  If you want something, always approach people you already know first to increase your chances of success.  

Even if you’ve been on somebody’s Facebook page for a while and interacted with them there, they are more likely to help out somebody who has made a connection with them in the past.  As a side note to this, make sure you *are* connecting regularly with people in your field, so that when you need something those friends are already made – nothing is more uncomfortable than having to force a connection with somebody because you want something from them!

Think about what your proposal offers the person you are contacting

Equal energy exchange is great, so think about how you can help the other person, as well as how they can help you.  Word this in a friendly, non-bargaining way in a first email, though.  Generally, saying ‘I’ll do this for you if you do this for me’ doesn’t come across half as well as you think it might.  My policy is to do favours for people I admire or support anyway, not as a bargaining tool.

A real-life example from The Art House is requests for free use of our space, in exchange for a professional service, publicity or other ‘goods in kind’.  

Whilst this seems like a good idea, bartering in business isn’t always the best way to go, unless you can put a clear like-for-like monetary value on what you are offering.  Generally, if a person usually charges for a service, product or facility, then assume they want and need to be paid with real money.

Give people notice

I get lots of enquiries to do things by next week, which is rarely possible.  

Assume everyone you contact needs at least 4 weeks to do something for you, sometimes longer.  It’s also safe to allow anywhere from a week to 21 days for somebody to respond to you, so allow lots of time for projects you need help with.

Follow up, but nicely and not too soon

A follow up email is great, as long as it’s very polite and short, and not 2 days after you sent your original enquiry (seriously, I get lots of these!).  

Take ‘No’ for an answer

It is hard for anyone to say ‘No’, harder still when the person gets back to you refusing to accept your refusal!  If somebody has said no, thank them for their interest, join their mailing list or ‘like’ them on Facebook and be nice about it – they may help you sometime in the future.


Follow up by telephone

Seriously, don’t!  An email to follow up usually does the trick, telephone calls are rather passe, don’t you think?

Get angry or hurt by a ‘No’

That doesn’t help you, not at all.  If somebody says no, accept it with grace and move on.

Post important requests on people’s Facebook walls or send Facebook messages

They get missed, very easily.  Find an email address and contact the person that way, or via the ‘contact’ form on their website.  We all make this mistake from time to time, but just be aware that if you need a quick response, Facebook isn’t a good way to get it.

Be cocky

Nobody responds well to arrogance!

Assume somebody is too busy/important to help

You will be surprised what a short, well constructed email can get you – and who from.  

Do you have any tips, or pet peeves about emails you get?  Please share them in the comments section!

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