You press “New” in your email editor and are faced with an empty message. You are drafting a request. Maybe you are asking a colleague to pick up a task. Maybe you’re petitioning your leadership to change a policy. Or perhaps you need something more personal, like a favor from a family member or help from a neighbor.
Whatever it is that you need, you’re staring at that blank screen wishing the message could just write itself. Where do you even begin?
Writing requests, especially for high stakes things, is hard.
I learned something about the power of words when I was a teen in 1983. We lived in an apartment complex with a shared laundry room. I’d worn a favorite ring—a family heirloom with no real monetary value but substantial sentimental value—while folding my clothes. The ring kept snagging so I took it off and placed it on the counter. Predictably, I forgot it. When I went back to retrieve it later, it was gone.
I did what anyone would do: I put up a “lost ring” sign on the laundry room bulletin board. A week went by with no word. I was beside myself.
After much consideration, I decided to try again. I wrote a note on binder paper. (Remember this was 1983. One did not simply “print” things in 1983. My choices were to use an aging clunker of a typewriter, or write the message by hand. I wanted to make the letters big enough to read from a distance. Handwriting served my purposes better than typing.)
My opening salutation was: “To the Person Who Found My Ring.” In the body of the message I explained what the ring meant to me and asked for its return. I signed my name and provided contact information. I pinned the note to the bulletin board in the laundry room and hoped. Would a personal appeal work where a lost notice failed?
A couple days later, I found my note on the bulletin board in a slightly different location, crumpled up as though it had been thrown away then re-pinned. My ring dangled from the pushpin.
No speech and debate class in school could have done as much to convince me of the power of persuasion. Words matter. How you ask for things matters.
It’s been nearly 40 years. In that time, I’ve written numerous requests. Certainly hundreds. Maybe thousands? While I’ve learned a lot about writing and framing requests in the last four decades, the original lesson I learned holds true: words matter; how you ask for things matters.
Recently a friend asked me for some advice on writing a particularly difficult, high stakes request. Here’s what I told them:
Write the “Call to Action” First
The call to action goes at the end of the message, but write it first anyway because it is the most important part of your note. It is where you ask for the thing you want. Think of it as your wishing wand: the place where you express your desire in the hope the recipient will grant it.
I would like the company to reimburse me for a good desk and chair.
For this draft, write without self-editing or negotiating yourself down. If you’re asking for money, don’t do that thing where you say to yourself: “Oh, that’s too much. They’ll never agree to that. I’ll ask for less.” Write what you want; you can change it later if necessary. Also, don’t worry too much about word choice for now; focus on intent. You’ll edit it later.
Make Your Request Concrete
You’re writing this email because you need something: a decision or an action or support of some kind. But asking for things can be difficult. It is tempting to gesture vaguely in the general direction of what you need and hope your recipient takes the hint. Don’t do that. Ask for what you need. Be specific. If you need a specific level of funding, give an amount.
I would like the company to reimburse me for a desk and chair that costs a total of about $2000.
Similarly, if you need something by a specific date, say so. Phrases like “at your earliest convenience” might sound nice, but they’re wishy-washy fillers. Instead say what you really need: “I am hoping to hear from you about this before next Monday.”
If the natural end of a sentence is “or else…”, revise the sentence to make your request clear but without an implied threat. (If you feel the need for an implied threat, you’re writing a different kind of message and the advice here probably won’t help you much.)
So instead of a request like “I expect you to…” consider “I am hoping you’ll…” or “can I count on you to…?”
Should It Be a Question?
If you want your recipient to reply to your message, you could frame your call to action as a question. For example, you might want to know in advance that your manager will approve an expense before you spend the money.
If I expense a desk and chair that costs a total of about $2000 will you approve the expense?
Of course, if you really need a response you can ask specifically for that:
Would you be willing to approve a $2000 expense for a desk and chair? Please let me know.
Provide Relevant Supporting Facts
The body of your message needs to include the relevant supporting details. Again, in your first draft don’t worry too much about word choice.
Now that we are working from home 100% of the time, the desk and chair I have just aren't comfortable enough. I bought them for occasional use, but they just don't work 40 hours a week. The desk is small and wobbly; the chair provides no lumbar support. I know the last time I asked about this you said the company doesn't provide financial support for home offices, but given the current situation...?
Avoid long explanations with extraneous details. You don’t need to tell your manager that you bought your current office furniture at a garage sale when you were a broke student and that you’ve been meaning to replace it but there were always higher priorities. Keep your explanation simple and focused.
Edit the Snot Out of It
The best requests are short and to the point. Now that you have a solid draft with all the relevant information, it’s time to edit it until it is clear, focused, unambiguous, and as short as it can be without losing meaning. First, make sure you have all the pieces in order:
salutation topic supporting information call to action close
Next edit each paragraph for clarity and brevity. Make every word / sentence / paragraph count. Think of it as if you’re paying by the word. In a sense, you are. The other person has to pay attention. They will start skimming or stop reading if the email exceeds their attention budget.
Hi, Now that we are working from home, the desk and chair I have in my home office are not adequate. I need a larger desk and more ergonomic chair. I realize historically the company has not provided financial support for home office equipment. Given the necessity of working from home due to the pandemic, I am hoping that policy has changed. Would you approve a $2000 expense for a desk and chair? Please let me know. Many thanks!
Read It Aloud
Reading your message aloud is a good way to “hear” how it sounds outside your head. You’ll find the places where the words don’t quite flow, or where you edited a little too aggressively and need to add detail back in. Reading aloud can also help you catch any remaining unnecessary details, frivolous niceties, and any possible hint of snark.
Triple Check the Details
How many times have you sent a message and one minute later noticed a serious typo? Make sure you spelled your recipient’s name correctly, that you got the right dates; that the link you included goes where you intended.
Give It a Meaningful Subject
“Re: A favor…” is probably too vague. Vague subject lines can sometimes be OK, but you’re better off with something more concrete like “Request: expense approval”
That’s it. Take a deep breath and wait for a response. Congrats! You’re done. Good luck!