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How to Email a Stranger

How to Email a Stranger
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Here’s how:

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    • 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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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