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):
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.
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.
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.