How Group Emails Become Distracting, Question-Answering Machines

Your friends and colleagues have insights that will help you out–but they’re too busy to answer your emails. Here’s what to do about it.

How Group Emails Become Distracting, Question-Answering Machines
[Image: Flickr user Robbert van der Steeg]

While asking someone for something might seem basic, there’s some pretty advanced stuff afoot: You gotta look for co-investment, for one, and for two, you gotta show you’re down to exchange value, and if you’re making your request via hypertext, you have to choose your words carefully, lest they offend somebody.


The challenge gets multiplied when you’re making an ask of multiple people to boost your research, ask advice, or otherwise ferret your way out of the day’s dilemmas.

It’s possible, though you need to get particular.

“Be being selective and targeted about who you ask,” Sarah Kathleen Peck writes at Medium. “The more specific you can be about WHO you ask, the better.”

Why? Because, Peck asserts, asking everybody in your network for something will lead to silence–and maybe lose you a few followers. (Though in Fast Company‘s experience, throwing a query to Twitter or Facebook can lead to unexpected leads. But that’s another post.) Instead, Peck says, you should hone in on the three people who can really help you rather than 15 people who aren’t interested.

In this way, specificity becomes courtesy. That targeting is a new-school form of politeness, the kind that David Ogilvy would dig, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner encourages, and WomenInnovateMobile accelerator cofounder Kelly Hoey says is among the basics of politeness in our inbox-inundated world.

It’s a matter of making your messages relevant to your recipients so that you don’t become irrelevant to them. People in Boulder don’t care about the class you’re teaching in San Francisco, Peck quips.


The group email as social experiment

The magic of the just-enough recipients is that it creates a greater incentive to action. How? From, as Peck notes, a good bit of groupthink:

When you email a small enough group, the presence of one initial response often prompts others to respond as well—creating the inertia of ongoing conversation rather than having to circle back and bother more people. When I email a group of five people that I highly respect and ask them to join a conversation, I try to include someone that I know is great at responding quickly. This generates an ongoing conversation.

Psychologists call it social proof: We go into crowded restaurants because people are already inside (it must be good!). And we join email conversations–and answer your questions–when the chatter’s already gotten going.

Hat tip: Medium

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.