Once in a while, you’ll need something from strangers.
You might need to find out about a job opening, connect with someone important, get a quote for an article, or just get advice. And, if you’re like me and feel anxious around people you don’t know, a phone call or in-person conversation can bring out a case of awkward turtles.
Enter the cold email.
If you do them right, cold emails are the no-hassle way to get someone’s attention without the stress that comes with making phone calls. And while I was working on the first part of my capstone project for my MBA, I really needed some hassle-free help; living abroad meant that I couldn’t make a ton of calls, and I didn’t want to chat too much anyway since my son was asleep every time I sat down to work. Emails were the winning choice.
Andrew Tarvin was one of my “targets:” one of multiple experts whose knowledge I needed for my project. Andrew is the founder of Humor That Works, consultant, speaker, and all-around mastermind when it comes to making corporate life fun—and he was kind enough to let me use him as an example.
By the time I had started researching Andrew’s work, I had sent other cold emails without much response. I really wanted his thoughts for my project, so I changed my approach to hedge my chances of a reply. Eventually, I settled on this format and got a response from him—and multiple others—within a few days. If you need to send a cold email and don’t know where to start, try the steps I used here:
You’ll be tempted to write a long email—don’t. Stick to a salutation, about three short paragraphs, and a sign-off. Make it easy for your subject to reply. A lengthy message looks more formal, but it’s also harder to read and more likely to end up in the trash. Write like a normal person, and you’ll have a much better chance of catching someone’s attention.
2. Start with a genuine compliment
“Genuine” implies that you can say something nice about your subject that not just anyone can say (so “I really like your work” or “I’m a huge fan” don’t count). This statement shows that you cared enough to get to know this person, and suggests that they could benefit from getting to know you.
Find your subject’s website, LinkedIn, Twitter, or wherever else you can dig up information, and find out about their latest projects and where they apply their passion. In Andrew’s case, I listened to his TEDx talk and tried to convey why his thoughts were valuable to me. Again, keep it brief—you want to look like a go-getter, not a kiss-up.
3. Create the “ask”
Your request for help is the meat in your cold email, but don’t go crazy on the details. Mention that their know-how would be helpful in achieving a goal of yours (a school project, an article, networking, etc.). But again, you want to make it easy for them to help: whittle your goal down to a few short sentences, and share exactly how much time you need from them. 10 or 15 minutes is ideal, since anything beyond that is overbearing if the two of you are strangers. My “ask” took up two paragraphs for Andrew, but I still cut out a lot of fluff.
4. Thank profusely
Thank them at the end of your email. If they respond, thank them again. You pretty much want to thank them every time they talk to you. If possible, show gratitude by offering something: an article they’d like, updates on your project, some link love, product reviews, LinkedIn endorsements… stuff like that. Repay them for their efforts in any way possible.
Here’s what the four-step system here looks like in action:
My name is Amanda Suazo, and I’m an MBA student at Washington State University. Just caught your TEDx talk. As a former intern and current Microsoft Paint enthusiast, your thoughts are spot-on—humor is underrated, but powerful.
I was wondering if you had 10 minutes to add some magic to a project I’m working on. I’m developing my capstone, which involves creating a new business—in this case, a traveling toy exhibit for offices and conferences. Clients could learn about why play is useful, test toys alongside their colleagues, and buy them if they choose. The idea is to foster team building and creativity.
I have three surveys in total to send—would you have a few minutes to add some feedback to the first one (and the following ones, if you’re inclined)? Comments and ego shredding are more than welcome. The attachment below can also be recycled into a blank Word document!
Thanks for your time. I’d be psyched to hear from you.
Also, knowing what I knew from his TEDx talk, I made a meme and attached it to the message:
The whole thing is short, genuine, detailed without being wordy, almost funny, and conveys gratitude—the perfect storm! It’s possible that I lucked out; Andrew was very helpful and patient as I made my way through this capstone thingy (part one, at least). But I do believe that you can use these steps on anyone and get a reply from someone if they’re reasonable.
- If your subject doesn’t answer in a week, follow up with another short email. If they don’t answer after that one, just let it go. People are busy, but the ones whose help you can truly use will still talk to you.
- Don’t be afraid to aim high! Mark Cuban answers cold emails if their contents are compelling enough. You can’t lose if you try.
- You must not ask for more than a few minutes of someone’s time until you’ve built a relationship. Think about if you were in your subject’s position—busy, important, and more likely to help people you do know—and consider whether you would answer an email from a stranger who needed tons of excessive help. It’s rude when someone entitles themselves to your time like that—so don’t be that person.
- Never underestimate humor (a message I definitely learned from Andrew). If used tastefully and in the right context, it will get you noticed and can calm your nerves about the whole cold email thing.
- Most importantly, if you scoured the web and still can’t find someone’s email, use this little tool. It was a huge help for me.