Want to be more effective at driving results? Tailor your requests and your method of communicating them to significantly improve the quality of the response you receive while also reducing the time you wait to receive them.
Top 12 most effective ways to ask someone to do something
- Whenever possible, create and maintain relationships before you need them. When your request is to someone who knows and trusts you, the request is less likely to be treated as a one-time transaction vs. as a discussion to determine how to get you what you need. One of my best work relationships is with someone where our first conversation was at 3am due to an emergency. He didn't understand where I was coming from, and I didn't understand his perspective, making it quite a heated discussion about how many people on each of our teams to wake up in the middle of the night to work an issue. After the emergency was over we both intentionally worked to create and then over time maintain a relationship. This improved the morale of our teams while also making future items much easier and effective for us to collaborate on.
- Be sure to explain why your request is needed in addition to what is needed. Adding this context helps the receiver understand priority and motivation. Consider these examples of things that I have received: "I need XYZ feature created for customer ABC" vs "I need XYZ feature created for customer ABC. They are making a decision this month on buying additional services and they want to make a decision soon."
- Use the best method of communication-based on the timeliness of your request and how those receiving it prefer to communicate. Remember that what works best when you receive requests of varying priorities may not be how others work. I am personally a fan of the Inbox Zero philosophy and am surprised when I see an inbox with thousands of unread messages. What I do is not necessarily best for everyone, even though it works quite well for me. If you know someone doesn't use their inbox to determine what is needed of them in short order, ask them what method they do prefer.
- Always include when you need something when you request it. Don't assume those receiving the request will intuitively know this. They may not be able to do it when you want it, but it at least sets the expectation so they can prioritize accordingly. Consider this example "I need XYZ" (timeline unknown) vs. "I need XYZ by 10am tomorrow" (must be a high priority) vs. "I need XYZ when you have time in the next month" (allows the receiver to prioritize this with their other work).
- Use all communication tools at your disposal as appropriate. Different teams/people have different preferences and workflows. Remember that they may be different than your workflow. Consider if they prefer to receive a request via email, instant message, SMS message, audio call via instant messenger, audio call via work phone, audio call via cell phone, voice mail, or a ticket to be filed in a tracking system (such as Service Now, Remedy, Jira, etc). I prefer a phone call last. I get too many spam calls and don't listen to my voicemails until much later in the day. Those who prefer to leave voice mails have learned to contact me via other methods first (such as instant messenger or iMessage).
- Use common sense and don't over escalate your need or it will lower morale and cause your future requests to get a lower priority than they may deserve. AKA: Don't cry wolf.
- Conversely, don't under escalate your need or your critical goals may not be properly served. Make waves when necessary to do what is right for your critical goals and for your customers.
- When requesting something via email include a summary of the nature of the request of the beginning of the subject line. Everyone is busy and that will help the receiver to effectively triage your email. Some examples: "Opinion requested," "Help please need an answer by Monday, Feb 15" and "Help ASAP please".
- When trying to get someone's attention in a group chat (such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc) be sure to tag them by typing an @ sign before their name. That will trigger a push notification. I have coached a number of team members about this as they often don't remember or realize that leaving out the @ sign will make it more likely than not that their message will not be seen by the intended recipient.
- Don't assume that recipients will receive push notices in the same way that you would receive them (in instant messages and email) as they are easy to miss and many users have push notifications muted as they get too many of them. You may need to use other methods to contact them. Remember that everyone doesn't operate in the same ways that you do. Some keep their email inbox small and some let it get to thousands of unread messages and prefer other ways of contact for timely requests.
- Avoid creating emergencies for others due to substandard planning on your part. Plan ahead whenever possible so that those you work with can plan out their work and minimize "must do this now" interruptions. Emergency requests are surely sometimes warranted but if overused they impact the morale/motivation of those to which you are making requests.
- Pay attention to time zones. Avoid contacting someone on their cell phone when they are off work unless you have a true emergency.
Best practices for specific toolsIf you don't know what the preferred method is to contact someone, ask them! The answer may not only surprise you but will improve your effectiveness and working relationships.
- Consider whether you should email a team distribution list or a specific person. The team distribution list reaches more people, but generally, each person will have a lower motivation to respond than if you email specific people.
- Use a descriptive subject line that summarizes what you need and when you need it.
- If your request is a high or low priority, consider marking it as such. This helps the receiver triage and prioritize. Examples: Outlook, Gmail
- If you need to ensure you follow-up if you don't receive a timely response, use features of your email provider to remind you to do so. Examples: Outlook, Gmail
- Don't assume that those receiving your email follow the same practices that you do for triaging and prioritizing your messages. You may need to use other methods.
- Consider whether you should message a team or a specific person. The team reaches more people, but generally, each person will have a lower motivation to respond than if you message specific people.
- When trying to get the attention of specific people in a group channel/room tag them individually so they will be notified of the message. This can be done in Slack, Teams, and WhatsApp by typing an @ sign before their name. (Your mileage may vary for other tools)
- Don't assume when they will see your message. Different people have different preferences on how they prefer to be pushed messages. Many have the notifications turned off as they get inundated with them.
- Don't assume that those receiving your instant message follow the same practices that you do for triaging your own messages. You may need to use other methods.
- Ask the person what the preferred phone number is to reach them.
- Avoid calling someone on their cell phone outside their working hours unless necessary.
- Don't assume that if you prefer phone calls/voice mails that others also do. You may need to use other methods.
- Create an easy way to determine the time zones of those you work with. I work with folks in 4 time zones in the US, 2 in Europe and 3 in Asia. I find this to be indispensable. Some examples: Display multiple time zones in Windows / Display multiple time zones on your Mac.