How to Email a Stranger

Way back in July of this year, I suggested that one way to add kick to a research paper was to consult an expert. A lot of people disagree with this, imagining, I think, a flood of sloppy emails from students begging the experts to do their homework for them.

That was never my intention, of course — I’ve received far too many of those sorts of emails myself! Emailing an expert — or anyone you don’t know personally — to ask for assistance or input requires some finesse, and done well it’s far from the easy way out. You are, after all, asking someone to take on a task that they don’t need to take on; unless you give them a compelling reason to be interested in you and your project, they have nothing to gain by helping you.

So your first order of business is to give them something to gain, a reason to put themselves out for you. And you need to gain their confidence that their input is not going to be wasted or misrepresented. In short, you have to sell yourself and your project.

Here’s how:

  • Do your homework. Only contact someone if you’re very clear about who they are and how they can help you. Read their bio, learn about their work, and find out as much as you can about what they’re doing now — it does no good to email, say, a physicist about research she did 30 years ago and has since recanted. This means know your topic, too — don’t email someone with basic questions that could be easily looked up on Wikipedia.
  • Offer something of value. You’re asking for something — be sure to offer something in return. Your insight into their work, an interesting observation on the relationship between what they do and what you’re doing (or what someone else has done), a description of what you’re doing that will excite them, whatever, so long as it makes helping you valuable.
  • Be clear about what you want. Don’t make them guess what you’re asking of them — say it loud, say it proud! Even if you’re only writing to open a channel of communication, say it.
  • Offer your skills. Again, make the transaction valuable to the person you’re writing to by offering your future assistance. Perhaps you can help them with a thorny problem, provide some piece of information, even volunteer your labor on a project.
  • Introduce yourself. Don’t forget to say who you are and what you’re doing! Not just “I’m a student” or “I’m a designer” or whatever you are — say something useful about yourself that gives a sense of your personality. Don’t ramble on and on, just say enough to personalize your email.
  • Explain where you got their email address. Getting email from strangers can be disconcerting, so let your contact know how you found them: a university directory, met them at a conference, used their corporate website, looked their homepage up online, or whatever.
  • Don’t insult or threaten. I’m always surprised at how many people ask for help by challenging, insulting, or even threatening the person they expect to help them out. Needless to say, don’t do this. You’re asking a favor from someone with no obligation to grant it; abusive language will only get your email deleted.
  • Don’t beg either. Be confident. If you make sure to write a compelling and sensible email that offers something valuable to its reader (even if that’s just the prospect of an interesting correspondence), you’re not imposing. There’s no reason to apologize or put yourself down. Even if the person you’re writing holds a position quite a bit above your own, approach them as an equal, a colleague — and expect the same in return. That is, don’t work to maintain a relationship with someone who is incapable of treating you as respectfully as you treat them.

Be ready to accept a negative response, or even no response at all. People are busy and can’t always drop everything to take on a new project, no matter how small or how interesting. And there are still some people who fret over their perceived status and distinction, and will be affronted by your presumption to relate to them as an equal.

When that happens, accept refusal gracefully and move on. Time will deal with them — we live in an increasingly networked world, and the rules are changing. Distinctions of prestige and expertise are mattering less and less unless backed by the willingness to share and connect.

Most people recognize this, though, and if you approach them with respect and willingness to share, they will respond in kind. While this advice could apply just as easily to writing a letter (does anyone still do that?) in today’s age, email is king — it’s quicker, easier to respond to, and immediately available. So go ahead and take a chance — if you follow these tips, you have nothing to lose but a few minutes of your time..

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