Emails out of the blue

HOW DO WE CONNECT with strangers on a professional level, whether for fieldwork purposes, fundraising, promoting publications or organizing events? Unless we can actually meet in person, our first point of contact will most often be email. Indeed, cold calling tends to be disruptive and intimidating, while reaching out via social media is generally too casual. Email, in theory, provides the time and space to finesse your approach and maximize your chances of receiving a response. In practice, however, many introductory emails get ignored—less because everyone is busy than because their opening lines are poorly constructed. Well-designed emails are, in fact, extremely hard to snub.

A cold email follows a conventional structure, which requires preliminary research and reflection. To make your message pertinent, you must look around for publicly available information on the receiver, their work, their organization, and so on. You must also define your goal or, in other words, the desired action you want your email to prompt. 

Having done so, your actual copy will fall into a four-layered structure:

The subject line. First, the receiver must open your email in their inbox. That will depend, if they don’t recognize your name, on what else they see first: The subject must therefore grab their attention while fitting into a short space, to be easily legible, not least on a smartphone. Make your title explicit (“Discussing your views on xyz”), engaging (“Your latest publication”) or helpful  (“Insights for your new project”). If recommended by a mutual contact, another effective point of entry is to name-drop—write “On behalf of…”. Bear in mind that the subject line will determine the spirit in which the reader opens your message—impatient, confused, duty-bound, intrigued, or enthusiastic. That in turn will orient how they perceive the body itself. 

The object. Keep greetings short and immediately explain what you want, which is what the recipient urgently needs to know. Avoid vague references to connecting or catching up. If you seek a meeting, establish its purpose and agenda. If your motive is to share a document or an event invitation, describe it in your first sentence. In the same breath, personalize your request, or your offer, by making it about the reader themselves: Clarify why you are writing to them specifically. For example, anchor your message in their proven interest for the topic, in some note-worthy aspect of their latest publication or their organization’s obvious needs. Generic formulas will only read like spam.

The argument. Once the reader knows what you’re hoping for and why it’s relevant to them, you still need to convince them to respond favorably. This is the right moment to bring up your credentials, the content of the ideas you want to discuss or the significance of your proposal. Make sure you omit any jargon and describe yourself and your undertakings clearly. Moreover, keep your recipient’s perspective in mind through noting the value you are bringing them. 

The call to action. An email builds up to a single, specific ask, designed to make it as easy as possible for your recipient to respond. If you were aiming for a meeting, suggest time slots. If you want feedback on an idea, ask for it simply and directly. Ideally, your message must allow your reader to decide what to do within seconds: Don’t lose focus and simultaneously request that the recipient open an attachment, visit your website, and sign up to your distribution list. Such messages will be discarded or flagged for future processing—which often boils down to the same thing. 

To be effective, your email must also follow some essential stylistic rules. The first is brevity. Each paragraph should generally consist of two or three short sentences. If you must absolutely share more information, itemize it into bullet points. Leave out anything redundant, such as your name, which already appears both in your email address and your signature. And always self-edit with the aim of cutting your message by half; the reader must be able to grasp it at a glance—and certainly without scrolling. 

Second is tidiness, as any sign of sloppiness sends the wrong message regardless of content. Check the spelling of names and acronyms, correct your typos, and give it one last proofread before you send. Software like Grammarly can also help catch many of the mistakes we tend to overlook.

Third comes tone, which poses the challenge of striking the right balance. Without seeming too familiar, try to be as warm and energetic as possible. Indeed, a cold email doesn’t have to feel cold! How your personality comes across will play a big role in shaping your reader’s overall impressions and willingness to interact. 

Finally, be genuine and consistent. Intrigued recipients will reflexively look you up on the internet, notably on social media. Your public profile should thus back up your email; at a minimum, it must not make you look insincere. For instance, people frequently make the trivial mistake of expressing great admiration for the person or organization they are writing to, while noticeably ignoring their social media activity. 

All these tips apply to various other forms of communication, such as cover letters, calling strangers over the phone or sending them private messages on social media. These rules will help with ordinary emails too, as we struggle to get responses from even people we already know and work with. Too many emails get little done for lack of a clear sense of purpose. Better emails, not more, is the answer.

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Illustration credit: Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis Lightning by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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