The idea seemed crazy at first. Wildly overreaching. For me, a little-known journalist and columnist, to get a Nobel laureate to contribute to my book.
For starters, how do you even reach a man like Amartya Sen? I began with Harvard, the university where he teaches Economics. I found an email and a landline number on the website.
What sort of email could I write that would stand out from the thousands of emails he must get? I spent a few days mulling over it in my head. Should I open the mail with a reference to his books, most of which I had read? I had heard Professor Sen speak earlier that year at the Jaipur Literary Festival, a speech that was clever, humorous, and full of insights. It was a speech I’d enjoyed and even taken notes from.
So I began the first paragraph of the email thanking Professor Sen for that speech. In the next paragraph, I quickly established my credentials. Columnist at the financial daily Mint and author of Career Rules, a forthcoming book being published by HarperCollins. In the third paragraph, I spelled out my ask: a paragraph or a page for young readers on careers in economics and careers in general for my book, either by email or a phone interview.
Basically, I followed the principles set out in Harappa’s Writing Proficiently course. I made a case by using the GRT—Goal, Recipient, and Tone—framework for written communication. These three elements bring clarity and make your writing more effective.
The first step to effective writing is to identify the goal of your communication. In this case, my goal was to get Professor Sen to write a paragraph or a page on careers in economics for my book.
But having a goal isn’t enough; you also need to know your recipient. I had read almost everything Professor Sen had ever written and knew all about him. I used my understanding and knowledge of his work in my email to reinforce my credentials.
And finally, the tone of your communication is important Because writing doesn’t happen in real-time. The recipient of your communication can’t see you. It’s important to be confident, but not overconfident; be polite and sincere; emphasize your key points; and be respectful. In general, in written business communication, it’s also good practice to be empathetic.
I made sure my email was polite and empathetic.
Days passed. No reply.
I then called his landline at his office at Harvard University and spoke to Christina, his assistant. Had he received my mail? What did she advise? What was the best way to reach him? He was traveling, she said.
I wondered what to do next.
A few months later, I read about The Country of First Boys, Professor Sen’s new book of essays. I mailed and called again. By now Christina recognized me as the writer from India. We had chatted briefly a few times.
Professor Sen was going to be in India next month, she said, for his book promotion. Maybe I could connect then.
Eureka! This was getting closer, I thought. I was glad I made the calls to his office and connected with Christina. And that I had taken so long to frame the mail.
I then wrote another email.“I can imagine you must be on a packed schedule,” I wrote. “But if you could spare 20 minutes for a meeting in Delhi, that would be so inspiring for the readers of this book.”
Empathy, politeness, I told myself. Empathy and politeness in your written communication is not always the easiest thing to do but it goes a long way.
Two weeks passed, and I had given up any hope of a reply when one day I woke to a mail from Professor Sen. He was in Shantiniketan, he said.
“Right now I am down with a bit of fever and some kind of a viral ailment, but I am hoping to recover enough to be able to go to Delhi as planned. The Delhi programme is, however, very heavily overbooked, and with my ailment (temporary as it is), it is hard to cut corners. But I am sending you my cell phone number (PLEASE DO NOT SHARE IT). You could perhaps give me a call around the 11th or the 12th and see whether there might a mutually convenient time. Otherwise when I visit India next, which should not be too far away. Best regards, Amartya.”
I felt I got a response because I had made a clear case. And because I had established a connect with Christina, the assistant to Professor Sen. I had taken cognizance of Professor Sen’s huge workload and packed schedule. So we did speak and at length! Though sadly the paragraph didn’t happen because it was too late. Nevertheless, I was on a high. Amartya Sen said yes!
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Sonya Dutta Choudhury writes for publications such as Mint and The Hindustan Times. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta, she is also the author of Career Rules: How to Choose Right & Get the Life You Want.
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