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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

Question

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?

Answer

Ah, the art of the cold email. Is it an art? I mean, get the cold part. We call it cold because it can be brutal, both the writing and the response (if there even is one). But sure, I guess it is art in that there seems to be an expected and accepted canon, and 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.

Ugh.

So how to approach this unforgiving art form? Remove any soul-crippling pressure in two steps. First, let go of any expected response. Like all art, you’re going to have to release your baby email 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 I write cold emails by, and I do so 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! This cold email is a dense ice block you need to chip away at. Google their Twitter feed, see if they have any published interviews, read something they’ve written. Speak to that immediately. A few words of admiration can go a long way. A little flattery never hurts, but be 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. It’s tough, but true.

3. Keep it short (and strategic). The reader should be able to scan the whole email in 5-10 seconds. Keep your sentence structure simple, and break up text into paragraphs of a few sentences, max. Also think about all the ways your reader might interact your text. Is the person is busy and likely to open your message on their phone? Then the subject line and preview text (usually the first two-ish lines of the body copy) are crucial. Lead with something powerful to motivate them to open it. Remember, first impressions are everything.

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 led them this far, don’t drop the ball with a wishy-washy conclusion that will only create more work for them. Instead, get specific (again!) about your ask. Set all the 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 addressing is also a human being. It’s crazy how easy it is to lose sight of this! They might also be currently being besieged by the world! So forgo the empty “hope you are well” opening liners and end with a sincere note of appreciation. By recognizing the value in the other, you’re increasing the likelihood that they, too, will recognize the value in you. Besides, even if they don’t respond, by being thankful you’ll give your own brain a mini-hug.

The only thing left to do? Like all art, you have to practice, practice, practice. You might break through on the first try, 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!

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