If you want to ask a stranger or a distant acquaintance for networking or career help, the first step is writing an email that won't be ignored. Many of the people whose help you'd most like are busy and often get more email than they can respond to. And since emails from strangers often go to the bottom of the list, it's important to craft an email that they won't be inclined to ignore.
Here are seven ways to write a networking email that gets a response—and hopefully the action you want.
1. Start with some context. Briefly explain who you are and how you came to contact the person. Don't give your whole life story—a couple of sentences is all you need—but do set up some context before you plunge into what you're looking for.
2. State clearly what you're looking for—and be specific. Explain exactly what you want. Are you looking for a phone call, a meeting, an introduction? Information about their field? Career advice? Don't make them guess—either about the topic or about what you'd like from them in particular. Most people you're reaching out to are going to be busy; they don't want to spend their time trying to read between the lines and figuring out what it is that you're asking … and you don't want to make them fear that if they agree to talk, they'll end up in an open-ended call or meeting where you're not prepared with clear and specific questions.
3. Explain why you're reaching out to them in particular. Why do you think that this person, out of all the people you could have contacted, can help you? Is it because you're alumni of the same school, or she worked somewhere you'd like to work, or he wrote an article that you found helpful? Give enough context that the person can understand why you think they have something that will be helpful to you. And by the way…
4. Be flattering. If you're reaching out to someone, you must think he or she is insightful enough to want his or her help for a reason. Tell him or her what that reason is. Explain what it is that you admire about him or her. This will soften most people right up, and make them a lot more inclined to help you out than if you just launch right into what they can do for you.
5. Be concise. Busy people don't have time to read lengthy emails, and sending five paragraphs when you could have sent two doesn't show you respect their time. Keep it brief—there will be time for more later if they agree to talk with you.
6. Make it easy. Whatever you're asking for, think about the easiest way for that person to give it to you. Don't suggest lunch when a coffee would be faster. Or suggest a phone call instead. And always say that you'll make time for it whenever is convenient for your contact. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.
7. Say thank you. Most people like to help other people out, but they like to be appreciated for their time and effort. There's no faster way to leave someone feeling cold toward you than to accept their time and help and not seem appreciative.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.