Like many liberal arts majors, I didn’t waltz right into a good career when I graduated from college. The challenges of a real-world job hunt hit like a tidal wave, and I scrambled to find a foothold.
It was during this time that I learned how important it is to be able to write a good email asking someone for a favor. I needed help, but I needed to ask for it in ways that weren’t annoying, desperate, or rude.
I’m now much further along in my career, but I still periodically find myself asking things of my mentors, friends, former co-workers, and even complete strangers. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to write emails in a way that gets a positive response.
This article will detail some best practices when it comes to making a request by email, with advice mined from my own experience as well as from experts in email communication. I’ll focus on a situation in which you’re asking for career advice from someone you don’t know that well, but the principles can be applied widely.
Always keep in mind that it’s easier to ask for a favor from someone who’s in your social circle, or from someone for whom you’ve already done a favor in the past. That’s why it’s so important to build and maintain a good social network and to treat others the way you want to be treated.
Sure, you’re the one asking for a favor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be additive to the person you’re reaching out to. This advice is admittedly tricky to follow if, say, you’re a new grad and you’re emailing a vice president at a big company. What can you possibly offer them?
Maybe it’s a gesture as small as offering to buy them a coffee, beer, or lunch should they meet up with you. That might not seem like much, but it demonstrates you’re willing to put some of your (likely meager) resources on the line for the chance to pick their brain. People respect that.
Alex Birkett, marketing manager at HubSpot, has written extensively about the importance of providing value when asking for favors. He writes that providing value could mean “many different things: friendship and favors, the draw of future reciprocity, cold hard cash, stimulating conversation, an introduction, etc.”
Not all of those suggestions will be applicable in every case, so you might have to get creative.
- Bad example: “Can we chat about my future sometime? I swear it will be worth your while.”
- Better example: “I’m just starting out, but I’d love to buy you a coffee and pick your brain.”
Be Confident and Credible
Just because the person you’re reaching out to is more established than you doesn’t mean you have to act meek. People don’t respond well to tentativeness or false modesty. Act like you’re deserving of their time, and they just might give it to you.
That being said, confidence without credibility won’t get you far. You’ll want to quickly establish that you have done your research on this person and that you have something specific to talk about. “‘Why should I care?’ is the tacit question hovering in most people’s minds as they open an email, especially if it’s from someone they don’t know,” writes Jocelyn K. Glein in her book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. “That’s why establishing your credibility early on in the message is critical.”
- Bad example: “I know you probably never respond to people like me, but I figure I’d take a shot in the dark. I’d really love to hear from you so I can tell you more about myself.”
- Better example: “I’m very interested in your industry (I interned in the same field sophomore year), and I’d be very excited to learn more about it from someone like yourself. I look forward to potentially talking further.”
Use Some Flattery (But Not Too Much)
Flattery is scientifically proven to generate favorable reactions, even when it’s insincere. You don’t want to be obnoxiously sycophantic, but it makes people feel good when you show that you have an appreciation for what they do.
Just make sure to be genuine about it. You can get a reply from someone even if you’re disingenuous, but I firmly believe that people will identify with true passion. I can’t prove that, but it’s my impression as the sender and receiver of many of these emails.
Just make sure you don’t go straight from obvious, fake flattery to demanding something of the person. Inc. magazine columnist and social media maven Dakota Shane hates it when “people reach out with artificial flattery (complimenting an article I wrote, etc.), and then they immediately dive into their canned pitch or ask for a favor.”
- Bad example: “Your work has changed my life and your recent article completely blew my mind! You are a legend! Can we meet up?”
- Better example: “I’ve been a fan of your website for a long time and I try to implement some of your strategies in my own life. I’d love to buy you a coffee sometime and get your advice.”
No one’s going to give you exactly what you want after a single email, and it would be rude to ask for too much all at once. It’s much better to start small. People generally want to help those who are just starting out, but they’ll be less inclined to do so if it seems like you’re going to hoover up a lot of their time.
Part of being realistic is providing an escape clause in all of your emails. This means giving the person a chance to politely decline your request. Great on the Job author Jodi Glickman suggests using the line, “If you can’t help out, I completely understand.”
- Bad example: “I see you have a job opening at your company that I’m interested in exploring. Can we talk sometime? Can you help me get an interview?”
- Better example: “Your company is the exact kind of place I’d like to work at one day, so any advice you have on breaking into the industry would be tremendously valuable to me. But if it’s not a good time, I completely understand.”
One thing you learn when doing sales for a living is that bigger is not always better. You might think the recipient of an email wants to hear every detail of your life story, but trust me: they don’t. They’re busy, and email is a time suck. You will greatly increase your odds of a response if you get right to the point.
Try to add some value, show your interest, give a compliment, ask for help, and sign off.
- Bad example: [Writes out an entire resume, makes multiple jokes, asks six questions, rambles for three paragraphs.]
- Better example: [Plainly states the reason for the email and quickly makes a case as to why the recipient should respond. The whole thing is no more than five sentences.]
Treat these emails like you’re a salesperson selling a product. The only difference is that you are the product. You want to come across as respectful, unobtrusive, and useful. If you remember to be honest, additive, and concise, you’ll go a long way toward convincing people they should help you.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. We all do it, and those of us who get asked for a favor by polite people usually treat it as an honor. So, get out there and email! As the old cliche goes, “You’ll never know if you don’t ask.”
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