How to Cold Email a Complete Stranger

dear stranger I don't know

Reaching out to complete strangers to ask them for help is something we all have to do from time to time.This essential skill is something few people feel comfortable doing. It can feel both futile and presumptuous. How do you get attention and input from a busy person who doesn’t know you?

As an introvert, I’ve never been very comfortable with it, but after years of practice, I have learned a few things that make it easier—and likelier that I’ll get a response. I’ve sent out cold emails for any number of situations: scoping out a job prospect, asking for a comment or quote for an article, personnel recruiting inquiries, and general informational interviews all come to mind. While the ask in each case is different, the principles in play are fundamentally the same.

Here are five tips to get you started and increase your chance of success, with a real life example from an email I actually wrote in 2010 (with some small details modified, for privacy) when I was considering starting my own non-profit.

1. Make your introduction brief and specific
Introduce yourself in a sentence or two and briefly explain why you are contacting them. Ya know, provide some context! Do you know someone in common? Do you share an industry? Get to the point, and do it pretty quickly.

Example (critical point in bold):

Dear John,

I attended the Wildlife Expo on October 3rd for the first time. I was so impressed by all of the wildlife conservation projects I learned about, particularly their passionate leaders. Your model for supporting their work is the first I’ve heard of its kind, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.

I have been volunteering with animals since I was a kid. After graduating from Brown in 2004 I became more serious, taking on fostering, volunteer management, and adoption counseling with local animal groups first in New York City and now in San Francisco. I’m now considering starting my own rescue group and am seeking advice from people who have done something similar.

(If you’re writing specifically to find out more about a position or a company where you want to work, it’s often a good idea to add a sentence or two about your interests/background and how you see that overlapping with the person you’re contacting.)

 

2. Have a clear ask

You’re writing for a specific reason—to ask for them to share a comment/quote, to talk to you about their role or a career transition, or to learn about a project they’re working on. Make sure that your ask is clear.
Example (the “ask” in bold):

I’ve been working with a fellow volunteer to try to create a new business model for a domestic animal welfare group. We want to emphasize an integrated approach making sure that humane education, community outreach, sensible spay/neuter policies, and of course a robust adoption program are all part of the solution. We want to ensure that our group is well-run, ambitious, and can demonstrate measurable results.
Would you consider meeting with us to give us your thoughts on how the WCN model might apply (or be adapted) to work on a domestic scale? Your experience and business savvy would be tremendously valuable to us as we continue to brainstorm and develop this idea.

 

3. Offer them something in return
This point won’t apply every time, but especially if you’re reaching out to someone who is very busy, it’s always a good idea to think about what you can offer them. This gets their attention and also signals thoughtfulness and reciprocity. It’s not all about you! It needn’t be anything fancy; it could be as modest as sharing information about something you’re working on that you think is relevant for their business or company.

Example (the offer in bold):

In this case I actually didn’t offer John anything, but I could have! Even something as simple as “… and I’d love to share some of the things I’ve been working on that might be of interest to you” would work.

 

4. Stick the landing
Don’t end your email by saying “be in touch,” or “I’d welcome your thoughts.” It’s so easy to ignore that. Instead, propose a specific time to talk, either in person or over the phone. In my case, I was writing to someone who was the founder and president of a major non-profit organization. I knew this guy’s time was at a premium, and I wanted to make sure he knew I was aware of it (having said that, it’s always best to assume the person you’re writing is busy, without a lot of time to spare for strangers seeking their advice!).

Example (superb landing in bold):


I imagine the requests for your time and expertise are considerable; we would greatly appreciate the opportunity to squeeze in somewhere. We are both dedicated to trying to achieve this goal, and with some guidance and feedback from people like you I believe we will be well positioned to build something meaningful.

Could we take you out to coffee some afternoon next week—how about Wednesday or Thursday at 4 p.m.? We’d be happy to meet anywhere in the city that is convenient for you.

Leda Marritz

 

5. Say thanks
If they agree to meet or talk to you, obviously follow up with a thank you email! This is just basic courtesy; I’m sure your folks taught you as much. Like your initial email, make your thank you specific and brief. If there was anything they said they would follow up with, it’s good to remind them.

Example:

I so appreciated you taking the time to speak with me earlier this week. Hearing about your experience, including the challenges you faced, was extremely valuable. I also really appreciate you connecting me with Hugo Avery; I am talking to him next week. I hope you don’t mind if I’m in touch periodically about our progress, and thank you again.

These are just a few things to think about the next time you have to reach out to someone you don’t know to ask them for a favor. It may never be easy, but you can become better at it. The result—a response—is what you’re after.

Have you had any success with this? Share any stories or tips you have in the comments.

 

The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.

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14 Comments / Post A Comment

guenna77 (#856)

timely. i have to mostly-cold email a couple people for testimonials today, and I’ve been spending the morning procrastinating

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@guenna77 Hopefully this will make it a wee bit easier!

I cold-emailed Jonathan Franzen once. He was nice to me, and I’ve defended him in public ever since.

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@Ester Bloom That’s pretty neat. I always respect people for responding, even if it’s to say that they don’t have time to meet, talk, or whatever.

notpollyanna (#2,841)

@ledamarritz I’m always very conscious that they owe me nothing and say so in my emails. Like, “Even if you can’t do this, that’s okay and thanks for reading this.” Maybe that means I’m less likely to get the response I want, but that is how I deal with the discomfort of cold emailing.

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@notpollyanna I think that’s OK! I think acknowledging that you understand their position isn’t a bad thing. Shows humility and flexibility.

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of things from time to time — not constantly (I’m not that important!) but not infrequently, either. What I’m likely to respond to:
-Keep it brief. Who are you, what’s your interest in me/my organization, and (as #2 above indicates) what specific thing are you looking for? That last part is really important — if your email is disorganized and doesn’t have a clear ask, I’m likely to think that you, too, are disorganized and will likely waste my time.
-for the love of god, be polite. (You’d be shocked at how many people are not.)
-don’t be one of those people who needs something immediately. Look, your school project deadlines are not my problem. Make contact early!
-don’t ask for something involving confidential information or something that’s unethical. (Also a thing that happens!)
-it’s fine to suggest a meeting time or whatever, but be prepared to be told no, if it’s something that can be accomplished by phone or over email.
-I don’t particularly feel like people need to “do something” for me in return, but you should send a thank-you email or, even better, card afterwards. Particularly for people who are doing informational interviews, internships, etc, that will keep you on my mental list of people who don’t suck. : )

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@chickpeas akimbo Great suggestions! Thanks for weighing in on how it feels to be in the recipient shoes.

notpollyanna (#2,841)

@chickpeas akimbo Double super thanks! Now this isn’t just conjecture but we’ve heard from an actual cold-email-ee!

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

@notpollyanna @ledmarritz no problem. I would also note that I, personally, am more likely to respond to an email that seems earnest but mildly clueless than something that’s, you know, officious and uses lots of horrible MBA jargon. But that is just me! For example, if you don’t know if something you’re asking about is confidential, I think it’s fine to be like “I’d love to discuss X with you, if you are able to share that information.” I tend to get a lot of these queries from younger people who are trying to break into my industry, so I assume they don’t already know everything there is to know, which is 100% fine.

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@chickpeas akimbo I’m the same way. Whenever I’ve been approached for informational interviews – which has happened maybe half a dozen times – earnestness wins over generic/business-y. The worst is when they have absolutely no idea what you or your company do. Basic research, people.

siege91 (#1,738)

The use of “ask” as a noun is a monstrosity that must be stopped before it consumes us all. I don’t know if the users of noun-ask really think it means something other than “request”, or if they’re unfamiliar with the word “request”, or if they know all about “request” but are code-switching to match the apparent stupidity levels of their corporate superiors and avoid sounding like a SNOOT, but something has to be done to quash this. It makes you sound like a poorly programmed office robot, and it’s just grammatically wrong in a way that if you heard a first-grader say it you’d correct them without even thinking about it just so they don’t sound stupid their whole lives. END OF RANT.

PS these were all good suggestions, especially, ironically, having a specific question in your email.

sig sag (#1,782)

As a sender of cold emails, I often title my emails “Request for mentorship” or “‘Name of mutual acquaintance’ recommended we speak.” or praise “AWESOME NYT feature!” or memorable keywords strung together… ex. “open data syracuse- beer?” Cause challenge number one is getting people to open the email.

As a receiver, I inevitably fail to answer long emails or emails with multiple things I have to do in order to send. Using email to schedule phone calls is best, so you receive dedicated time to your issue. Also, I like the satisfaction of archiving an email. Let me have my satisfaction as soon as possible.

My successes include getting lots of important people to go to lunch with me, spending Thanksgiving with an artist I loved reading about in the NYTimes. Also, an incredible amount of failure. Be sharp and pointed not just for the benefit of your reader, but for your own sanity. Make many small bets.

ledamarritz (#3,069)

@sig sag great point about the subject line of the email!

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