September 15, 2020

Lip Service

Lip Service is a writing advice column. A communication helpline. Any time you’re at a loss for words, you can ask us anonymously for our best ideas on what to say, type, or share. Lip Service is free, so you can take it or leave it. It’s as simple as that.

How to Write the Dreaded Cold Email


I’m dreading writing a cold email for a job I really want. Any ideas for what I can say to gain and keep their attention?


Ah, the dreaded cold email. We call it cold because it can be brutal, both in writing and response. Still, the right cold email can be a work of art–in that there seems to be an accepted canon based on form and function, yet the only ones that ever seem to break through defy convention. Plus, like a lot of art, cold emails, no matter how time intensive or skillfully done, rarely lead to economic compensation.


So how to approach this unforgiving art form? Remove any soul-crippling pressure in two steps. First, let go of an expected response. Like all art, you’re going to have to release your baby into the world and let it take on a life of its own. By accepting this from the start, it will be easier to write.

Second, master the fundamentals. I’ve got five rules to write cold emails by, in this order:

1. Make it about them. If you’re starting off with “Hi, my name is Dwindle, and I’m a…” you’re toast. The first sentence needs to directly address the person to whom you’re writing. Not sure what to say? Do your research. The cold email is a dense ice block you need to chip away at. Google their Twitter feed, see if they have any published interviews, or read something they’ve written. Then, at the start of your email, mention their work immediately, keeping your observations specific and sincere. Bonus points for identifying a problem they have and offering a solution. People love when you make their lives easier!

2. Sell yourself. In one sentence, explain what five-star dish only you can bring to the proverbial table. Now’s also the time to include if you have any connections in common. Stressed at the thought of covering all of that in a single sentence? Go back and work on your value proposition. If you’re not clear on why someone should hire or you, no one else will be either. Tough, but true.

3. Keep it short. The reader should be able to scan the whole email in no more than 10 seconds. Keep your sentence structure simple, and break up text into paragraphs of a few sentences, max. Also, think about how your reader might interact with your text. Are they more likely to open your message on their phone? Then the subject line and preview text are crucial. Use them to your advantage, and lead with something powerful.

4. End with a clear action item. You mentioned you wanted to keep their attention, but I think what you really want is for your reader to take action. That’s why this piece is critical. If you’ve brought them this far, don’t drop the ball with a wishy-washy conclusion. Instead, get specific about your ask. Set parameters so that it is easy to opt in or out of the request.

5. Express gratitude. You’re a human being, and the person you’re writing to is also a human being. It’s crazy how often we lose sight of this! Chances are they are currently feeling besieged by the world, and any slight you feel due to their limited or absent response is unintended. So forgo the empty “hope all’s well” liners and end with a heartfelt note of appreciation. By recognizing the value in the other, you’re increasing the likelihood that they, too, will recognize your value. No matter the outcome, the expression of gratitude will give your own brain a mini-hug.

Once you’ve got the five steps down, like all art, you have to practice, practice, practice. You might break through with your first cold email, but you can’t get discouraged if you don’t. You’ll just have to try again. Try not to go in with set expectations, try to follow the fundamentals, and try to say something unique to you.

Most importantly, try. Don’t let the dread keep you down! Good luck.

Filed under: Advice